Iraq’s Road to Counterinsurgency

By Robert Tollast.

The following opinions are the authors only, and do not necessarily represent the views of Iraq Business News.  This article examines Iraq’s localised and national level attempts to foster pan sectarian cooperation against ISIL, looked at in the context of previous counterinsurgency campaigns fought by Britain and the US. 

“Our fighting against the Shi`a is the way to drag the [Islamic] nation into the battle.Someone may say that, in this matter, we are being hasty and rash and leading the [Islamic] nation into a battle for which it is not ready, [a battle] that will be revolting and in which blood will be spilled. This is exactly what we want.”

Abu Musab al Zarqawi, captured correspondence, 2004. Two years later, violence levels in Iraq peaked with over 3000 Iraqis killed in a single month, in November 2006.

“Sunnis are ourselves, not [only] our brothers”

Grand Ayatollah Ali al Sistani, 2012. Ayatollah Sistani continues to urge support for sectarian harmony and human rights in Iraq, in sharp contrast to a number of popular clerics in the Gulf States (see this Brookings report.)

On November the 19th, 2005, a patrol of US Marines in Anbar were hit by a roadside bomb (IED) which killed a popular young Lance Corporal, Miguel Terrazas. The enraged Marines exacted spontaneous and brutal revenge on nearby civilians that they found, and in the ensuing “Haditha massacre” 24 Iraqi civilians, including children, were murdered.

Prior to the killings, the area had increasingly become a hotbed of salafist insurgents, members of the predecessor to the Islamic State of Iraq, the forerunners of “The Islamic State.” Their ultimate aim, outlined above by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, was domination and genocide, no different from the goal of ISIL today.

One year after Zarqawi’s correspondence was captured, and after the bloody battle of Fallujah, attacks on the Marines in Haditha were increasing and casualties were mounting. Undoubtedly, the enemy were brutal: in September that year, 13 Shi’a fishermen were taken to a football field in the town and executed. Sunnis working with the government were also targeted.

But the young men of Kilo Company, 3rd battalion, 1st Regiment, 1st Marine Division, now on their third tour, evidently decided that civilians and insurgents were the same on the day of the IED. Even still, events in Anbar were about to take a dramatic turn.

Barely a year after this massacre, the US Marines were in regular dialogue with community leaders in Haditha, had formed a force of local Sunnis who were effectively opposing the Islamic State in Iraq and had seen violence levels plummet. To this day, locals in Haditha fight ISIL in one of the few outposts of resistance to the group in Anbar.

This change in approach–from fearful armoured patrols ready to strike back at anything that seemed hostile, to street patrols and “chai” with local tribes, paid dividends: the US army had re-discovered the politics of counterinsurgency. Emma Sky, a civilian advisor to General Ray Odierno in Iraq in this period, recently described the new approach in an article in The Daily Beast:

“I observed U.S. soldiers on the ground pacifying their areas of operation by protecting the population, reaching out to insurgents, brokering ceasefires, and carefully targeting those who were irreconcilable. It was the psychological impact of the surge that was the critical factor. We transformed our mindset and our approach—and this created the incentives for a change in the strategic calculus of different Iraqi groups.”

46 Responses to Iraq’s Road to Counterinsurgency

  1. Nicasso July 6, 2015 at 7:45 am #

    Hi Robert,

    A useful article – good stuff. Muqtada al-Sadr will be minor player in any dialogue with the Hashd al-Shabi. His ‘Peace Brigades’ are not in the same league as Badr, AAH or Kaitab Hezbollah. Lots of rhetoric but the capability is not there as it was 2004-2008. Another problem will be convincing rank and file Hashd al-Shabi that the US is their ally. The amount of suspicion of US intentions is palpable in southern Iraq. It’s quite common to hear ordinary Shi’a Iraqis talking of the US arming ISIS, even though elements of the Hashd are reportedly living side by side with US forces in Anbar. I believe closer co-operation is required but it will need high level agreement between US and Iranian officials….yes Iranian not Iraqi.