Category Archives: insurgency

“Bloody Monday” Firefight, 2 May 05

Quite a while ago, I posted a short video showing a daytime firefight at Trash OP.  At the time, I didn’t know any of the details surrounding it.  I also made some comments, based on my own observations.  Here’s that post; Firefight at Trash OP.  The video’s pretty good, so I suggest you see that first, then come back here…

maxwell at trash op
Cpl Luis Maxwell

Thanks to Jason Ellis and a few other Marines, I now have much more info on this engagement.  First off, now I know the Squad Leader was Cpl Luis Maxwell in India’s 1st Platoon. Based on what I saw in the video, I made positive comments about the way he was handling his end of the fight, so its good to know who that was.

Also, now I understand this shootout was much longer than the video portrays. Firing went on for hours and thousands of rounds were expended.

Finally, this was just part of other events going on in Husaybah on May 2nd.  Foreign fighters of Zarqawi’s AQI had murdered and beheaded the new Police Chief, trying to intimidate the local militia of the Albu-Mahal tribe–sometimes called the “local muj” by the Marines.  Which is why in one of my my draft chapters, I call 2 May 05 “Bloody Monday”.  Other violence was also occurring in the city (see a chapter excerpt at the bottom of this page).

me with the western pic of the saw
Jason Ellis, and his SAW named “Boondock”

Anyway, here’s an entry from Jason Ellis’ combat journal, which he’s shared with me. He kept written details of the firefights he was involved in, and gave me permission to post this.

May 2 – Trash OP

At Trash OP, 2nd Squad with attachments took contact. The attachments were LCpl Carnes, Butcher, Pale and CAAT [Section from WarPig1].  Pvt Fitzgerald was with CAAT.  At 8am we took a few pop shots at our post.  Roughly at noon we took full contact to our post.  Cpl Maxwell had all the SAW gunners get online, me being one of them, and fire into the house that we were getting contact from.  We opened up with a 30-round burst. 

After we hit the house we received more fire. You could here the enemy’s rounds whizzing over our heads.  Then we were in a full firefight.  Everyone was unloading on all 12 of the house we were taking fire from.  Fitzgerald was on the .50cal, he unloaded hundreds of rounds into the house.  The Mk19 was on the CAAT HumVee, they started launching HEDP at any target that presented itself.  

At times, I was firing 100 bursts at the enemy.  It got so bad that we were running out of ammo.  The AAVs had to bring more ammo out to us in the middle of the firefight.  By the end of the 6-hour firefight none of us were wounded or hurt.  We couldn’t say the same for the enemy.  The total amount of rounds that were shot were 7,000 5.56mm, 80 HEDP out of 203s, 200 .50cal rounds, 200 HEDP out of the Mk19.  I alone fired 2000 rounds out of my SAW.  Halfway through the firefight, the .50cal went down and was taken out of the battle.  The Mk19 also went down, but they got it back up.  There were so many targets to engage that it was insane.  

–Jason Ellis

This is a section from my draft chapter, ‘Ramana’, that briefly discusses May 2nd, 2005 and the violence that occurred in Husaybah.  I’ll be revising it slightly to mention this extended firefight at Trash OP.  

Bloody Monday

The 2nd of May was a particularly volatile day, and in hindsight seems to have been the precursor for other developments.  Although available sources are limited and indirect, they portray the picture of AQI flexing its muscle and local forces starting to push back.  

That Monday in Husaybah, Ahmed Adiya Asaf walked openly among the shoppers and merchant stalls along Market Street.  He had recently been installed as the city’s new Chief of Police, with the rank of Major. He was a well-connected Mahawali, and by placing him into this position the tribe was showing it would bring security to the area, on their own terms, not as puppets of foreign-born radical ideologues.  

But Major Ahmed’s connections weren’t enough to protect him.  Suddenly, seven men emerged from the crowd and attacked him, shooting him dead on the street, then publicly beheading him.  News of the gruesome murder pulsed through the population like a shockwave, a blood-spattered announcement of the costs of resisting AQI. Yet there were those ready to resist, meeting violence with violence.

Behind their fortifications at Gannon, India Company had limited awareness of what was happening in the streets that day, but received reports of red-on-red fighting in and around the city. A large group of armed men was spotted, and a Cobra/Huey team was dispatched.  Upon arrival over the city, the helo crews reportedly monitored a firefight between two armed Iraqi groups. At one point, the helicopters themselves took ground fire and the Huey was damaged seriously enough to make a temporary emergency landing.

Looking back through the prism of time, it now appears the fight between the tribal forces of the Albu Mahal and the foreign fighters of AQI was intensifying just as Operation Matador was about to kick off.  This would have implications for the upcoming mission, subsequent operations by 3/2 and for the further development of relations with tribal leaders.


Governor of Anbar kidnapped, 10 May 05

Farhan w Mundy1

Part of the backdrop to Operation Matador (8-14 May 05) was the kidnapping of the provincial governor by insurgents on 10 May.  This was also part of the wave of violence sweeping over all of western Anbar province at the time.  The kidnappers (probably AQI) explicitly said they took the action to force US forces out of the Al-Qaim area.  Like so many others, this story has a tragic ending, with Governor Nawaf Farhan eventually being killed in a firefight several weeks later.

It took me a while to connect the dots here, but recently was able to tie several things together.  Farhan’s kidnapping and death makes much more sense to me now, and helps fill out the overall narrative.  The main piece that fell into place was my discovery that he had been the Mayor of Al-Qaim, the same one LtCol Mundy and other 3/2 Marines met with on 15 March (the ides of March, BTW) at the beginning of the tour.
3/2’s CO meets with Al Qa’im, 15mar05

His full name was Raja Nawaf Farhan al-Mahalawi, signifying he was part of the Albu Mahal tribe (for some reason, the article above calls him Raja Nuwaf Fahran Al-Sharhi).  According to an Al-Jazeera news item:

[Farhan] Al-Mahalawi only recently became governor after tribal leaders forced out his predecessor Faisal Raikan al-Gut al-Nimrawi, who narrowly escaped a roadside bombing in February.  Al-Mahalawi, who is originally from al-Qaim, served as mayor of the town under Saddam Hussein.

Weeks later, the Governor met an untimely end, ironically just as US troops had stumbled upon the location where his captors were holding him.  Here’s an excerpt from his Wikipedia entry:

On 29 May, a US Army unit on patrol near Rawah came under RPG and automatic rifle fire from insurgents in a farmhouse.  They returned fire, killing 4 of the fighters and wounding 3 others.  Farhan’s body was then found inside the house. The body was found blindfolded and chained to a gas cylinder, and had suffered from a blow to the head.  Mahalawi hadn’t been shot, but had instead seemingly been killed by a falling piece of rubble during the firefight.  Of the four fighters killed by the US troops during the firefight, 2 were from Syria, 1 from Algeria, and 1 from Jordan. Of the three injured and captured, 2 were Saudis, and 1 was a Moroccan.

And here are several more press articles about this whole episode:

Governor of Iraqi province seized, Al-Jazeera, 11may05
Abducted Iraq governor found dead, BBC, 31may05
Governor of Anbar Province Killed, Fox News, 31may05
Body of kidnapped Iraq governor is found, NY Times, 1jun05
Anbar leader found dead after assault, Chicago Tribune, 1jun05
Kidnapped Iraqi governor is found dead after clash, Boston Globe, 1jun05

Valuable reference: The Awakening, Vol III-A

Al Sahawa DocsThis is an outstanding reference, that is hard to find. I’ve told several people about it, and some have asked me to send it. Now I can just send a link and people can download for themselves.

The Institute of Defense Analysis (IDA) published a detailed, multi-year, multi-volume study on the campaign for Anbar and the Awakening.  It is an outstanding resource. The graphic shows all the different volumes of this quite impressive project, several of which you can access on IDA’s website.

IDA paperThe volume on Al-Qaim, however, is not available online (at least I couldn’t find it), so I had to request it direct from IDA and they emailed it to me.  To make it easier for others, here it is:
Awakening Vol IIIA-AlQaim

It covers the Al-Qaim area, over multiple years and units, including 3/2 in 2005. There are multiple interesting interviews with key players. But from my perspective, the most important are long interviews with LtCol Mundy, 3/2’s Commander (page A-3), and Capt Diorio, Commander of India Co (page A-39). The full transcripts are in Vol III-A.

There appears to be a DVD, with all volumes and videos, that you can order.  This is a short preview of the project, that IDA posted on YouTube.


References for the Preface

Battle for Ramadi
In Ramadi, Fetid Quarters and Unrelenting Battles, NYT, 5jul06


Sheikh Sattar & Awakening

We held a meeting and agreed to fight those who call themselves mujahadeen. We believe that there is a conspiracy against our Iraqi people. Those terrorists claimed that they are fighters working on liberating Iraq, but they turned out to be killers. Now all the people are fed up and have turned against them — Sheikh Abdul Sattar Abu Risha in a Sep 06 New York Times interview.

Sheikhs Help Curb Violence in Iraq’s West, U.S. Says, Wash Post, 26jan07
UPI, Analysis: U.S. backs tribes for security, UPI, 13feb07

Albu Nimr tribe and ODA 505 in Al-Phurat, 2004
Better Lucky than Good, Brent Lindeman, Naval Postgraduate School thesis, dec09

Albu Ali clan fights AQI in 2005
Iraqi Sunnis Battle To Defend Shiites, Wash Post, 14aug05

24 Infantry Battalions in the Marine Corps
Heritage Foundation; Assessment of U.S. Military Power, 2018
The Marine Corps’ basic combat unit is the infantry battalion. A battalion has about 900 Marines and includes three rifle companies, a weapons company, and a headquarters and service company. FY 2017 appropriations supported 24 infantry battalions, an increase from 2016 levels but still down from 27 in FY 2012.  Although the President’s FY 2018 budget request retains support for 24 battalions, under full sequestration, USMC end strength would be able to support only 21 infantry battalions, which, according to General Dunford, would leave the Corps “with fewer active duty battalions and squadrons than would be required for a single major contingency.”



Michael Totten, an independent writer and journalist, wrote the best and most detailed account of how the Awakening began and progressed in Ramadi, in my opinion…
Anbar Awakens: Part 1
Anbar Awakens Part 2: Hell is Over

Joel Wing, another independent writer, put this 5-part series up on his blog, ‘Musings on Iraq’. It covers events from the Iraqi angle. The series is called, ‘Understanding Anbar Before & After the Awakening’:
Part1: Thamir al-Asafi
Part2: Sheikh Abdullah Jalal Mukhif Faraji
Part3: Sheikh Ahmed Sattar Al-Rishawi Abu Risha
Part4: Sheikh Wissam Abdul Ibrahim Hardan
Part5: Sheikh Jassim Mohammed Salah al Suwadawi & Sheikh Abdul Rahman al-Janabi

America is at the mall

(This post was incorporated into the book’s Preface)


As he navigated through the cramped hallways of the battle-scarred Government Center in Ramadi, Iraq, award-winning photographer John Moore tried to stay out of the way as gruff U.S. Marines hustled from one room to another.  For many months, the Government Center had been ground zero in the fight to win back control of the most important city in Anbar Province.  Moore lifted his camera as his practiced eye glimpsed a handwritten note on a whiteboard. There, in a careful, cursive script (rare in military settings) some anonymous bard-in-cammo had written:

America is not at war.
The Marine Corps is at war;
America is at the mall.

The photo was taken in January 2007. It was published in U.S. newspapers, then circulated around the blogosphere for a few weeks, but faded quickly from America’s collective consciousness — ironically proving the nameless author’s point. No doubt it was quickly erased from the whiteboard as well, as such cutting cynicism is not the message the Marine Corps wants to project to the public.

But for those who had fought bloody battles to secure Ramadi in late 2006, known then as the Sunni insurgency’s “heart of darkness”, the cynic’s lines perfectly captured their mood.  It was a hard-edged sentiment, with equal parts disgust and pride.  Pride at what they’d endured and accomplished. Disgust and disillusionment that it was so casually disregarded, even actively devalued, by most of their countrymen at home.

Today, that same bitter mixture still circulates in the veins, synapses and buried memories of those who served in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Take the time to really talk to an Iraq War veteran about his or her experiences there, and you will likely hear some version of “America is at the mall”.

(I’ve moved the rest of the Preface to its own page)


The 6-Way War

4-way graphic
The red dotted line shows the operative dynamics in Anbar Province in 2005. Gray arrow depicts the latent conflict between the Coalition and Iranian-sponsored Shiite militia groups.

I’m changing the title again, cause ‘6-Way War’ sounds a little catchier, kind of like the famous ‘6-Day-War’… Don’t know, may change it again…

Anyway, this is a section I’ve been mulling over in my mind for some time, and its time to put it together.  I think this is a good way to encapsulate the multifaceted, diabolically confusing Iraq War.  To boil it down, there were four major ‘factions’, each struggling against the other three.

Hopefully this nifty graphic makes some sense.  While there are four ‘sides’, there are actually 6 separate ‘axes’ of conflict:

  • Coalition vs. Sunni ‘resistance’
  • Coalition vs. AQI / Jihadists
  • Sunni ‘resistance vs. AQI/Jihadists
  • AQI vs. Shia / government / Iran
  • Sunni ‘resistance’ vs. Iranian/Shiite government
  • Coalition vs. Iranian Influence

And yes, I left out the Kurds and the Turkomen, to keep it under control…

Here’s the way I think I’ll approach this, in outline form:

The Marine Corps “strategic corporal” and “three-block-war” ideas.  Background and explanation.  New demands on small unit leaders and individual Marines.

Explain the 6-Way War concept and graphic.

Coalition vs. Sunni resistance – upon arrival in Al-Qaim this was the main conflict for 3/2.  Security and Stability Ops. Conventional force vs. insurgents. As deployment progressed, this began to morph.

Coalition vs. AQI/Jihadists – The main Coalition command responsible for this fight was the JSOC Task Force 714, General McChrystal’s outfit. It was a parallel, but separate war in many respects, with Delta, SEAL Teams, and Rangers hunting for high-value targets (HVTs) across Anbar, including in 3/2’s battlespace.  But as 3/2 got on the ground, it also started engaging AQI as its main enemy. And as local insurgents turned against AQI, 3/2 (especially India Co.) became enmeshed in this dimension of the war.

Sunni resistance vs. AQI – Also known as ‘red on red’.  This was a major theme during 2005 in Al-Qaim. Local insurgents (Albu Mahal tribesmen, then others) rejecting AQI’s tyrannical, terroristic rule. And ultimately calling on 3/2 Marines for help, which was the first part of the Sunni ‘Awakening’ process that changed Anbar so dramatically the following year.

AQI vs. Shiites, the Shiite led government and Iranian influence. – Zarqawi and his followers had a visceral hatred towards the Shia, and targeted them mercilessly. Since there aren’t many Shiites in Anbar, this wasn’t a prominent dynamic in 3/2’s AO, but it played out through AQI’s use of western Anbar and the ratlines to funnel suicide bombers and other so-called “accelerants” east into Bagdhad and areas where the Shia lived and worshipped.

Sunni resistance vs. Shiite & Iranian influence – This was also a secondary factor in 3/2’s AO, but did play a role. Some 3/2 Marines saw the ugliness of this sectarian hatred in various ways.  Chris Ieva’s walk through the angry Sunni crowd, along with Shiite Shawani SOF guys, is a dramatic example.

Coalition vs. Iranian influence. – Didn’t really figure directly into 3/2’s fight in 2005, as there were no Shiite militias in Anbar.  This wouldn’t become a big factor until after AQI’s bombing of the Samarra Mosque in early 2006, when JAM and Shiite death squads would become another enemy the Coalition would have to fight.


Zarqawi’s 2004 letter to Al-Qaida

Zarqawi-VideoIn February 2004, the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) in Iraq translated and released a letter from Abu Musab al-Zarqawi to the leadership of Al-Qaida.  In the letter, Zarqawi lays out his strategy to ignite civil war, particularly by targeting the Shiites in Iraq.

Below is the translation:

1. The foreign Mujahidin: Their numbers continue to be small, compared to the large nature of the expected battle. We know that there are enough good groups and jihad is continuing, despite the negative rumors. What is preventing us from making a general call to arms is the fact that the country of Iraq has no mountains in which to seek refuge, or forest in which to hide. Our presence is apparent and our movement is out in the open. Eyes are everywhere. The enemy is before us and the sea is behind us. Many Iraqis would honor you as a guest and give you refuge, for you are a Muslim brother; however, they will not allow you to make their homes a base for operations or a safe house. People who will allow you to do such things are very rare, rarer than red sulfur. Therefore, it has been extremely difficult to lodge and keep safe a number of brothers, and also train new recruits. Praised be to Allah, however, with relentless effort and searching we have acquired some places and their numbers are increasing, to become base points for the brothers who will spark war and bring the people of this country into a real battle with God’s will.

2. The present and future: There is no doubt that American losses were significant because they are spread thin amongst the people and because it is easy to get weapons. This is a fact that makes them easy targets, attractive for the believers. America, however, has no intention of leaving, no matter how many wounded nor how bloody it becomes. It is looking to a near future, when it will remain safe in its bases, while handing over control of Iraq to a bastard government with an army and police force that will bring back the time of [Saddam] Husayn and his cohorts. There is no doubt that our field of movement is shrinking and the grip around the throat of the Mujahidin has begun to tighten. With the spread of the army and police, our future is becoming frightening.

3. So where are we? Despite few supporters, lack of friends, and tough times, God has blessed us with victories against the enemy. We were involved in all the martyrdom operations — in terms of overseeing, preparing, and planning — that took place in this country except for the operations that took place in the north. Praised be to Allah, I have completed 25 of these operations, some of them against the Shi’a and their leaders, the Americans and their military, the police, the military, and the coalition forces. There will be more in the future, God willing. We did not want to publicly claim these operations until we become more powerful and were ready for the consequences. We need to show up strong and avoid getting hurt, now that we have made great strides and taken important steps forward. As we get closer to the decisive moment, we feel that our entity is spreading within the security void existing in Iraq, something that will allow us to secure bases on the ground, these bases that will be the jump start of a serious revival, God willing.

4. Plan of action: after much inquiry and discussion, we have narrowed our enemy to four groups:

A. Americans as you know, these are the biggest cowards that God has created and the easiest target. And we ask God to allow us to kill, and detain them, so that we can exchange them with our arrested shaykhs and brothers.

B. Kurds, these are a pain and a thorn, and it is not time yet to deal with them. They are last on our list, even though we are trying to get to some of their leaders. God willing.

C. The Iraqi troops, police, and agents these are the eyes, ears, and hand of the occupier. With God’s permission, we are determined to target them with force in the near future, before their power strengthens.

D. The Shi’a in our opinion, these are the key to change. Targeting and striking their religious, political, and military symbols, will make them show their rage against the Sunnis and bear their inner vengeance. If we succeed in dragging them into a sectarian war, this will awaken the sleepy Sunnis who are fearful of destruction and death at the hands of these Sabeans, i.e., the Shi’a. Despite their weakness, the Sunnis are strong-willed and honest and different from the coward and deceitful Shi’a, who only attack the weak. Most of the Sunnis are aware of the danger of these people and they fear them. If it were not for those disappointing shaykhs, Sufis, and Muslim brothers, Sunnis would have a different attitude.

5. Way of action: As we have mentioned to you, our situation demands that we treat the issue with courage and clarity. So the solution, and God only knows, is that we need to bring the Shi’a into the battle because it is the only way to prolong the duration of the fight between the infidels and us. We need to do that because:

A. The Shi’a have declared a subtle war against Islam. They are the close, dangerous enemy of the Sunnis. Even if the Americans are also an archenemy, the Shi’a are a greater danger and their harm more destructive to the nation than that of the Americans who are anyway the original enemy by consensus.

B. They have supported the Americans, helped them, and stand with them against the Mujahidin. They work and continue to work towards the destruction of the Mujahidin.

C. Fighting the Shi’a is the way to take the nation to battle. The Shi’a have taken on the dress of the army, police and the Iraqi security forces, and have raised the banner of protecting the nation, and the citizens. Under this banner, they have begun to assassinate the Sunnis under the pretense that they are saboteurs, vestiges of the Ba’ath, or terrorists who spread perversion in the country. This is being done with strong media support directed by the governing council and the Americans, and they have succeeded in splitting the regular Sunni from the Mujahidin.

For example, in what they call the Sunni triangle, the army and police are spreading out in these regions, putting in charge Sunnis from the same region. Therefore, the problem is you end up having an army and police connected by lineage, blood and appearance to the people of the region. This region is our base of operations from where we depart and to where we return. When the Americans withdraw, and they have already started doing that, they get replaced by these agents who are intimately linked to the people of this region. What will happen to us, if we fight them, and we have to fight them, is one of only two choices:

1) If we fight them, that will be difficult because there will be a schism between us and the people of the region. How can we kill their cousins and sons and under what pretext, after the Americans start withdrawing? The Americans will continue to control from their bases, but the sons of this land will be the authority. This is the democracy, we will have no pretext.

2) We can pack up and leave and look for another land, just like it has happened in so many lands of jihad. Our enemy is growing stronger day after day, and its intelligence information increases. By God, this is suffocation! We will be on the roads again. People follow their leaders, their hearts may be with you, but their swords are with their kings. So I say again, the only solution is to strike the religious, military, and other cadres of the Shi’a so that they revolt against the Sunnis. Some people will say, that this will be a reckless and irresponsible action that will bring the Islamic nation to a battle for which the Islamic nation is unprepared. Souls will perish and blood will be spilled.

This is, however, exactly what we want, as there is nothing to win or lose in our situation. The Shi’a destroyed the balance, and the religion of God is worth more than lives. Until the majority stands up for the truth, we have to make sacrifices for this religion, and blood has to be spilled. For those who are good, we will speed up their trip to paradise, and the others, we will get rid of them.

By God, the religion of God is more precious than anything else. We have many rounds, attacks, and black nights with the Shi’a, and we cannot delay this. Their menace is looming and this is a fact that we should not fear, because they are the most cowardly people God has created. Killing their leaders will weaken them and with the death of the head, the whole group dies. They are not like the Sunnis. If you knew the fear in the souls of the Sunnis and their people, you would weep in sadness. How many of the mosques have they have turned in to Shi’a mosques (“husayniyas”)? How many houses they have destroyed with their owners inside? How many brothers have they killed? How many sisters have been raped at the hands of those vile infidels?

If we are able to deal them blow after painful blow so that they engage in a battle, we will be able to reshuffle the cards so there will remain no value or influence for the ruling council, or even for the Americans who will enter into a second battle with the Shi’a. This is what we want. Then, the Sunnis will have no choice but to support us in many of the Sunni regions. When the Mujahidin would have secured a land they can use as a base to hit the Shi’a inside their own lands, with a directed media and a strategic action, there will be a continuation between the Mujahidin inside and outside of Iraq.

We are racing against time, in order to create squads of Mujahidin who seek refuge in secure places, spy on neighborhoods, and work on hunting down the enemies. The enemies are the Americans, police and army. We have been training these people and augmenting their numbers.

As far as the Shi’a, we will undertake suicide operations and use car bombs to harm them. We have been working on monitoring the area and choosing the right people, looking for those who are on the straight path, so we can cooperate with them. We hope that we have made progress, and perhaps we will soon decide to go public – even if gradually – to display ourselves in full view.

We have been hiding for a long time, and now we are seriously working on preparing a media outlet to reveal the truth, enflame zeal, and become an outlet for jihad in which the sword and the pen can turn into one. Along with this, we strive to illuminate the hindering errors of Islamic law and the clarifications of Islamic legal precepts by way of tapes, lessons and courses which people will come to understand.

The suggested time for execution: We are hoping that we will soon start working on creating squads and brigades of individuals who have experience and expertise. We have to get to the zero-hour in order to openly begin controlling the land by night and after that by day, God willing. The zero-hour needs to be at least four months before the new government gets in place. As we see we are racing time, and if we succeed, which we are hoping, we will turn the tables on them and thwart their plan. If, God forbid, the government is successful and takes control of the country, we just have to pack up and go somewhere else again, where we can raise the flag again or die, if God chooses us.

6. What about you? You, noble brothers, leaders of jihad, we do not consider ourselves those who would compete against you, nor would we ever aim to achieve glory for ourselves like you did. The only thing we want is to be the head of the spear, assisting and providing a bridge over which the Muslim nation can cross to promised victory and a better tomorrow. As we have explained, this is our belief.

So if you agree with it and are convinced of the idea of killing the perverse sects, we stand ready as an army for you, to work under your guidance and yield to your command. Indeed, we openly and publicly swear allegiance to you by using the media, in order to exasperate the infidels and confirm to the adherents of faith that one day, the believers will revel in God’s victory. If you think otherwise, we will remain brothers, and disagreement will not destroy our cooperation and undermine our working together for what is best. We support jihad and wait for your response. May God keep for you the keys of goodness and preserve Islam and his people. Amen, amen.


17 Oct 04, Zarqawi swears allegiance to Osama bin Laden and Al-Qaida


Who was the enemy? part2

Update (18jun18): Just found an interesting reference, mentioning several insurgent groups allegedly fighting in the Al-Qaim area in early 2005.  This from a “resistance” propaganda blog, and the whole piece is clearly very biased and inaccurate.  Much of it is just outright lies, but in one part several groups are mentioned.  Some are known (Ansar Al-Sunna, 1920s Brigades) but I’ve never heard of most of them:

Tuesday April 12: All involved Resistance groups (Jaish Ansar Al-Sinna, Mohammed’s First Army, Qaida Jihad in Raqfidain, Legions of the twenties Revolution, Legions of Al-Nasir Salah Al-Din, Abu Bakir Salafi Legions, Rahman Salafi Legions, and the Islamic Anger Legions) issued a joint statement giving the Americans 12 hours to withdraw from the perimeter of Al-Qaim to allow food and water to flow in to the civilians. Otherwise, a spike in attacks throughout Iraq will follow. In a seperate statement, an unknown group, calling itself Legions for Unifying Iraq has threatend to attack many targets, including churches, in response for prominently manifesting the Cross on American tanks.
(See the article here)

Update: Just finished a draft chapter on “The Enemy”.  Download it here

(See part 1 for a meandering attempt at an intro to this key question…)

As in any insurgency, the most frustrating aspect of the war in Iraq was always figuring out who the enemy was.  Right from the start, Saddam’s fedayeen fought the coalition in civilian garb and vehicles, and Iraqi soldiers and commanders quickly shed their uniforms but kept their weapons.  But there was also seriously muddled thinking at the top echelons of government and military command about how to characterize the enemy.  Early in the war, the Bush administration consistently used the terms ‘dead-enders’ or ‘former regime elements’ to describe the enemy.  All during 2003 and 2004, openly acknowledging an insurgency essentially meant admitting that Iraq would be a long and costly war, which was a political liability. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld famously and stubbornly refused to say there was an insurgency in Iraq until mid-2005 when the semantic charade became too painful.

This obfuscation trickled down through the military chain of command and into the field.  As 2004 turned into 2005, commanders, military intelligence officers, and public affairs spokesmen typically referred to the enemy simply as ‘anti-iraqi-forces’ (AIF), which crudely lumped together the various strains of the insurgency into a convenient, but conceptually erroneous acronym.  

For anyone deployed to Iraq in 2005, however, two things were crystal clear.  First, whatever approved ‘acronym-of-the-month’ was being used to describe them, there were definitely lots of armed insurgents.  Second, the insurgents were anything but monolithic. There were many groups and fluidly-organized elements that were fighting against Coalition troops, with a variety of motivations.  As many analysts have noted, the insurgency was never an organized, unified hierarchy but was a viral, highly adaptable and decentralized network.    

One common way that the Coalition tried to build a slightly more granular understanding of the enemy was to subdivide the ‘Anti-Iraqi-Forces’ label into major sub-categories.  In some headquarters, particularly among the Marines in Anbar and including RCT2 in early 2005, the insurgency was conceptually divided into three parts: criminal gangs, former regime elements (FRE) and foreign fighters (FF).  But in reality, these labels were still too simplistic and misleading to be of much use in understanding the enemy or formulating an effective counter-insurgency plan.  

The terms ‘criminal gangs’ or ‘criminal elements’ were very loose catchalls, which encompassed traditional cross-border smugglers, corrupt police or border guards, IED emplacement cells and guns-for-hire which offered services to the highest bidder, as well as tribal ‘security’ groups or militias.  While the Marines in 2005 (and the coalition overall) were still grappling with the question of how to relate to the tribes of western Anbar, most tribal forces were simply tagged as criminals.  

‘Former regime elements’ was probably the most meaningless of the labels, since Saddam’s regime had been so pervasive and intrusive that almost every male of substance in Anbar had some level of connection to the Ba’ath party apparatus, various government-controlled enterprises, the omnipresent security services or the military.  Bundling an individual or group into the ‘FRE’ category was usually a shorthand way for analysts to portray them as less-religiously motivated, and less affiliated with Al-Qaida and the transnational jihadist movement.  Plus, for field-grade and general officers in particular, using the term avoided the potentially loaded word ‘insurgents’ and possible heat from superiors.  Thus, many figures and factions in the insurgency in Anbar were initially thought of as former cronies of Saddam, when the reality was far more nuanced.  For decades, Anbaris had pushed back against government control from Baghdad, sometimes violently.  Saddam had seen the fractious sheikhs and tribal leaders in Anbar not as his cronies, but as rivals that needed to be neutralized or co-opted.  

The term ‘foreign fighters’ or ‘foreign fighter network’ was the most useful of the three labels, but still managed to dodge precisely defining the enemy.  While non-Iraqi fighters did sometimes end up with other groups, the vast majority were recruited, transported and deployed (often as suicide bombers) by the network led by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the Jordanian jihadist who became the most wanted man in Iraq. Essentially, when the Marines of RCT2 and the 3rd Battalion referred to ‘foreign fighters’ they were talking about the group that came to be known as ‘Al-Qaida in Iraq’ or usually just ‘AQI’.  And by spring of 2005, the main enemy in the 3/2’s battlespace was AQI.

However, the key point to understand about the insurgency in Iraq was its highly interwoven, amorphous character. Most of the fighters in western Anbar who were laying IEDs, sniping at troops or firing mortars at a coalition base, could on any given day fit at least two of the above labels and possibly all three.  For example; the same fighter or small cell might be simultaneously associated with a so-called ‘nationalist’ insurgent group, and part of their tribe’s militia which was deeply involved in smuggling or other black-market activities.  That would put them in both the ‘criminal gangs’ and the FRE categories. Additionally, if the smuggling involved bringing jihadists across the border from Syria, they could be labeled as part of the ‘foreign fighter network’.  

To further complicate things, shifting loyalties from one group to another was common, and insurgent groups often splintered, taking on different names, or recombining under some new name.  Moreover, certain insurgent cells were blatantly mercenary, treating violence as an opportunity for income.  Usually, these would be highly proficient in some particular area, such as bomb-making or firing mortars or rockets.  

In short, attempts to conceptually divide Iraq’s insurgency into discrete, neatly-packaged categories or groups was always too simplistic.  Later in the war, the US military developed the expertise and methodologies to understand and portray the insurgency in more detail, which helped immensely in 2006 and 2007 as the coalition began to wage a successful counterinsurgency campaign.  

But in the spring and summer of 2005, leaders and intelligence personnel in 3/2 were still trying to answer the essential questions; Who is the enemy? Where are they? How do we defeat them?  

While AQI was the most prevalent enemy in the Al-Qaim district, there were identifiable non-jihadist insurgent groups in AO Denver that operated under their own banner, and would issue communiques or threats and claim credit for attacks. At times they might cooperate with each other, but remained separate entities in that time period. Almost all their members were Arab Sunnis, as was the populace of western Anbar:

  • 1920 Bde logoThe ‘1920s Revolutionary Brigades’ most easily fit the characterization of an ‘Iraqi nationalist’ group, and many of its members were former military personnel. The name referred to the 1920 Iraqi uprising against the British colonial occupation, and the group formed soon after the US-led invasion in 2003.  Their rhetoric was anti-colonial, anti-occupation, anti-coalition, their stated purpose to rid Iraq of all foreign troops (including Iranian-controlled militias), and revert to an Arab, Sunni-dominated country.  The main distinction between the 1920s Brigades and most other groups in Anbar was the lack of emphasis on jihad and establishing an Islamic ‘caliphate’.  This translated into their tactics and how they fought.  Fighters in the 1920s Brigades were far more likely to take on US troops using direct fire and IEDs, and much less likely to use suicide bombings. In general, they avoided hurting Iraqi civilians and in some instances exhibited a rough-hewn ‘code of conduct’ on the battlefield, such as not beheading captives or defiling bodies. Their main operating areas in western Anbar, however, were mostly north of the Euphrates, between Rawah and Hit, which was further east and outside of 3/2’s battlespace in the Al-Qaim district. 
  • IAI logoThe Islamic Army in Iraq (IAI), or Jaysh al-Islami (JAI) was another Iraqi nationalist-oriented group that sprang up soon after 2003. With some estimates crediting IAI with 10,000 members, it was probably the largest Sunni insurgent group in the early part of the war.  Like the 1920s Brigades, IAI aimed at ejecting all foreign forces from Iraq and counted many former military in its ranks.  But as its name implies, IAI’s agenda was more Islamist in nature and up through 2005 cooperated closely with Al-Qaida in Iraq (AQI) and its predecessor groups.  Sheikh Ahmed al-Dabash, one of IAI’s founders, claimed to be “like a brother” to Zarqawi.  By 2006, however, IAI was denouncing Zarqawi’s bloody attacks on fellow Iraqis and began openly fighting against AQI.  In Anbar, IAI mainly operated in and around Fallujah and Ramadi, although some of the tribal fighters that 3/2 encountered further west may have been affiliated with IAI.
  • Iraqi tribal fighters.pngVarious tribal groups (an admittedly imprecise term) also fought against 3/2 and other coalition forces in far western Anbar.  These could be very localized, operating only in a particular village or district, under direction of a minor sheikh. In 2003 and 2004, most of these groups and cells were fighting against US troops, first against the Army’s 3rd Cav and then the Marines, and saw Zarqawi and his foreign fighters as allies against the occupiers. In fact, distinguishing between foreign fighters and local insurgents could be difficult. Clearly, 3/2 Marines were often fighting both foreign and local fighters in the same engagement.  By 2005, however, some of these tribal forces were rebelling against AQI. The most notable of these groups was the “Hamza Brigade”, an armed militia formed by the Albu Mahal tribe in and around Husaybah.  

Saudi suicide bomber at Gannon


firetruck chassis
Post-blast remains of the infamous firetruck, one of the suicide truck bombs that struck Camp Gannon

I just ran across a Washington Post article from 2005 that reports the name of a Saudi national who was allegedly one of the suicide bombers that attacked Camp Gannon on 11 Apr 2005.  The article acknowledges that there’s no way to confirm the information that was posted on jihadist websites a few days after the attack.

The article is titled “Martyrs in Iraq mostly Saudis”, by Susan Glasser, and you can see the full version here.  Below are the relevant sections about the 11 Apr attack:

Before Hadi bin Mubarak Qahtani exploded himself into an anonymous fireball, he was young and interested only in “fooling around.”  Like many Saudis, he was said to have experienced a religious awakening after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States and dedicated himself to Allah, inspired by “the holy attack that demolished the foolish infidel Americans and caused many young men to awaken from their deep sleep,” according to a posting on a jihadist Web site.  On April 11, he died as a suicide bomber, part of a coordinated insurgent attack on a U.S. Marine base in the western Iraq city of Qaim. Just two days later, “the Martyrdom” of Hadi bin Mubarak Qahtani was announced on the Internet, the latest requiem for a young Saudi man who had clamored to follow “those 19 heroes” of Sept. 11 and had found in Iraq an accessible way to die.


Biographical details are often sketchy in the online obituaries, as is the case with Qahtani, the young Saudi said to have died April 11 while attacking a U.S. Marine base in the western Iraqi city of Qaim. The account of his death located by Kohlmann on the Internet does not say whether Qahtani was driving the commandeered dump truck that barreled onto the base, wreaking havoc before exploding, or whether he was in one of two other vehicles that blew up while another group of fighters opened fire on Marines.

It gives no more identifying details than his name — indicating he was part of a well-known Saudi tribe that also produced the al Qaeda member known as the so-called 20th hijacker, Mohamed Qahtani, who was turned away from entering the country by suspicious U.S. airport officials in August 2001.

Who was the enemy? part 1

Update: See part 2, for a fuller discussion…

(Kinda botched this post. Got all ‘rambley’, and didn’t get to the point… I feel like starting over, but will leave this up for now…)

This is a surprisingly difficult question. From the experts, you’ll commonly hear the answer, “Well, it’s complicated.” I’ve used that myself a few times. And its true, as far as it goes. Counter-insurgency warfare is anything but simple, and the Iraq War was radically un-simple. It was… well… complexity on steroids.

masked fightersOne of the big critiques coming from the press and think-tank crowd (then and now), was that the Bush Administration, Rumsfeld’s Defense Department and the U.S. military writ large didn’t have enough subtlety to understand who we were fighting in Iraq.  And that’s true in absolute terms.  In 2003, American politicos, the generals, the combat troops and the intelligence agencies, didn’t understand the nature of the “enemy” in Iraq.

But no one else did either…

And that’s what the critics don’t ever admit. In relative terms, they were just as clueless, and had nothing to offer.

By 2004, it was easy to see that there was a growing insurgency (actually several) despite Rumsfeld’s stubborn insistence otherwise. Certainly everyone on the ground in Iraq knew it. But just saying there were insurgents about, and that there seemed to be different groups of them, was easy. Any idiot journalist could say that.

But really understanding who they all were, and what their goals and differences were, and how to stop them? Yeah, that was the hard part. And in 2004 and 2005, a lot of people–intelligence officers, strategy advisors, operations planners, commanders–were working hard to figure that out. (see Net v Net for my own modest contribution)

(more soon…)