The Magazine

The New Strategy in Iraq

General Petraeus learns from past U.S. mistakes.

Jul 9, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 40 • By FREDERICK W. KAGAN and KIMBERLY KAGAN
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The second Marine attack, in the fall, was much more successful. The local units were reinforced and given time to develop a much clearer intelligence picture, as well as to obtain local allies, although those were still few and unreliable. The much better-planned attack cleared the city, although with considerable collateral damage resulting largely from the sophistication of the defenses the enemy had been able to establish during the pause between the two attacks.

The Marines were not allowed to follow up on their success in Falluja, however. No effort was made to clear and hold Ramadi or the Upper Euphrates Valley for more than a year. In the meantime, the area between Falluja and Baghdad, including the Abu Ghraib neighborhood on the western outskirts of the capital, was left largely devoid of American forces and remained a major Sunni Arab insurgent and al Qaeda base. Nevertheless, Falluja was fairly stable for many months after the Marine attack, only slowly sinking back into chaos and enemy control.


The summer of 2004 also saw the only major combat between Coalition forces and Moktada al-Sadr's Mahdi army, or Jaysh al-Mahdi. This took place in the Shia holy cities of Najaf and Karbala and the Baghdad neighborhood of Sadr City. The Sadrist uprising followed close on the heels of the first Battle of Falluja, and it seemed briefly that the Coalition might be defeated simultaneously by Sunni insurgents and Shia militias across Iraq. But U.S. forces rapidly regained control of the situation in Sadr City, where Major General Chiarelli's 1st Cavalry Division restored order. Fighting in Najaf was greatly complicated by the fact that the Sadrists took up positions in and near the Imam Ali Mosque, one of Shia Islam's most sacred sites. Skillful Coalition military operations dislodged the Sadrists from those positions without significant damage to the shrine, and killed many Sadrist fighters in the process.

The battles of Sadr City and Najaf continue to influence the situation in Iraq today. Sadr appears to have learned from these battles that his militia cannot stand up to American forces in pitched battles. He has avoided situations that might lead to such fights, preferring hit-and-run attacks, the use of IEDs (and now EFPs, explosively formed projectiles), and death-squad attacks on Sunni Arabs after the bombing of the Samarra Mosque in February 2006. The successes in Najaf and Sadr City were fleeting in another respect, however. U.S. forces left both areas quickly, and the Sadrist militias retook control of them within months. The Sadrists remain largely in control of Najaf and were long uncontested in Sadr City, although recent events have greatly complicated their situation there.


After the uprisings of 2004, the United States focused its efforts on moving the political process forward in Iraq and on training the Iraqi army and National Police. It was widely expected in the government and especially in the military leadership that political progress would translate directly into improved security. It was also believed that the onus for conducting what military operations were necessary should fall on the nascent Iraqi military to the maximum extent possible.

Nevertheless, the Coalition command understood that only U.S. forces could provide the short-term security necessary for elections. The command requested and received significant reinforcements to this end in late 2005. The most dramatic battle before the elections came in September 2005, when Colonel H.R. McMaster's 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment cleared Tal Afar, a city in Nineveh Province between Mosul and the Syrian border.

Tal Afar was a stronghold of the Sunni Arab insurgency and al Qaeda on the road from Syria into the heart of Iraq. As in Falluja, the enemy had prepared sophisticated defensive positions and terrorized the local population into providing support. McMaster had a number of advantages over the Marines in Falluja, however. He had a larger number of trained and reasonably reliable Iraqi soldiers, the first fruits of a new effort to build an Iraqi army capable of conducting counterinsurgency efforts. He was also able to establish outposts in and around the city, develop a sophisticated intelligence picture, and shape the situation to his advantage before beginning the major clearing operation. The result was a marked success. The 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment isolated the city with a berm to control access and then cleared it house-to-house in conjunction with the Iraqi army. Some insurgent cells fought back determinedly, but the Coalition forces cleared the city without destroying it, and gained the support of the population in the process.