Iraq crisis: The decisions that led to the rise of Iraq’s Sunni insurgency

Kim Sengupta  on the changing military landscape

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In April 2003 I was standing next to Colonel Brian McCoy of the US Marines in Baghdad’s Firdous Square with the statue of Saddam Hussein, the Stars and Stripes draped over its face, about to be pulled down. He ordered it to be replaced by an Iraqi flag and during the circus which followed wanted to stress that his men should not stay in Iraq for too long; they were, he pointed out, fighters not nation builders.

That was not to be the case; the Marines would stay and then return repeatedly as the flames of the insurgency took hold, fighting battles in Falluja, Mosul and Tikrit, which would lead to the rewriting of American military doctrine; these were the same cities Nouri al-Maliki’s government will now have to retake from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isis) to stop the country from dismemberment.

Three years later, in 2006, another American colonel in Baghdad was reflecting: “They don’t talk so much about their ‘Northern Ireland experience’ any more, we notice, it was getting to a stage that every time they mentioned it we just groaned to ourselves”. He was talking about British forces, a sign of the strain among the allies facing a ferocious enemy.

The officer was speaking at the massive base next to the capital’s international airport, called Camp Victory. But the war was going anything but victoriously, with daily bombings and shootings and dead bodies piling up. A few weeks later the golden dome of the al-Askari mosque in Samarra would be blown up, starting the savage sectarian civil war between Sunnis and Shias.

The British, based in the south, had escaped most of this early onslaught but they were keen to share their expertise from The Troubles in Ulster and point out to the Americans what they were doing wrong – advice which began to grate after a while for some.

The UK’s respite was not to last; clashes began with Shia militias – the Mehdi Army and Badr Brigade – and sophisticated Iranian IEDs (improvised explosive devices) began to appear with devastating effect. The Northern Ireland Experience was not entirely relevant to the mayhem of Basra.

Iraq showed the inadequacy of the counter-insurgency strategy for the Americans and the British, their commanders acknowledged. Major “lessons learned” studies were commissioned which were to shape the campaigns undertaken later in Afghanistan and the counter-terrorist operations in places like Yemen and Somalia.

The British, lacking numbers, found themselves in a cycle of accommodation and confrontation with the militias in the south. The Americans were unhappy about the lack of aggression shown by their allies and blamed it for the growth of Iranian influence. But the body count was kept low.

It was very different in the American-controlled areas. Instead of the previous reliance on armour and air power, more emphasis was placed on special forces operations, with teams tracking down the enemy in their own backyards. The most lethal was under the command of Major General Stanley McChrystal, the chief of US special forces, based at Balad airbase, north of Baghdad, from where British SAS and American Delta Force teams would go out nightly to hunt al-Qa’ida and their allies.

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But the insurgency would not go away and in 2007 George W Bush announced a “surge” of forces under the command of General David Petraeus, one of the foremost proponents of counter-insurgency doctrine in the US military. The use of special forces continued while other troops were moved out of the large bases to “live among the people”; the “hearts and minds” campaigns, to which previous commanders had sometimes just paid just lip service, were given top priority.

At the same time the “Sunni Awakening” was organised with tribal levies and former insurgents were organised to combat al-Qa’ida. These fighters were key to the success of the surge and they were supposed to be integrated into the Iraqi armed forces. But the Shia-dominated government of Maliki reneged on that promise and stopped paying them after the Americans left; we can see the cost of that now with Iraq in turmoil and the Americans being dragged back into the quicksand of Iraq.

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