Author: Dr. Paul Burke


  1. Background and Context
  2. Protagonists
  3. Nature of the Conflict


1.     Background and Context

Described as “the longest surviving continuous tradition of civilization in the world”, Iraq is one of the oldest civilisations in the world, if not the oldest. Fast-forwarding to the 16th century, most of Iraq had been brought under control of the Ottoman empire, although it was still the target of continual conflict between the Mamluk and the Safavid elements. By 1831, the Ottomans had seized complete control of Iraq and it remained under Ottoman control until the dissolution of the empire after World War 1. Iraq then passed to British control, under the British Mandate of Mesopotamia, until 1932 when Iraq became independent.

Various rulers came and went, until 14 July, 1958, when Abd al Karim Qasim seized power in a coup and announced a new Republic of Iraq, officially ending the monarchy. In 1963, Qasim was himself the victim of a coup, this time by the Ba’ath party, led by Ahmed Hassan al Bakr and Colonel Abdul Salam Arif. Qasim was quickly executed following his trial. In 1968, another coup followed, led by Ahmed Hassan al Bakr who seized power on behalf of the Ba’ath party. Bakr appointed himself President of Iraq, and also Chairman of the Revolutionary Command Council (RCC).  In July 1979, Saddam Hussein instigated a coup of his own and seized power, forcing Bakr to resign. Saddam took over the roles of President of Iraq and Chairman of the RCC from Bakr and little more than one year later, he led Iraq into an 8-year war with neighbouring Iran.

The Iran-Iraq war resulted in huge numbers of dead and injured, plus infrastructural devastation on both sides, but with almost zero territorial advantage gained by either side. Estimates of casualties vary considerably, but an assessment of Iraqi fatalities from Iraq’s own Military Intelligence was given as 180,000. An assessment of Iranian fatalities, provided by an IRGC General, gives a number of 213,000. In terms of financial costs, Iran is estimated to have spent between $74-91 billion on fighting the war, while Iraq’s warfighting costs were estimated at $94-112 billion. The actual cost of the war to the Iraqi economy, however, was much greater, and Mofid puts the figure at $450 billion.

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In 1990, Saddam sent the Iraqi Armed Forces into Kuwait and seized control of the country, claiming it as Iraq’s 19th province. A large-scale build-up of troops and military materiel followed, to support a US-led coalition of countries opposed to Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait. Under the auspices of UN Security Resolution 678, the Coalition launched a ground offensive in January 1991 that routed Iraq’s Armed Forces and destroyed a significant amount of Iraq’s military capability.

Following the end of Operation DESERT STORM in 1991, various control measures were put in place to effect a containment policy against Saddam Hussein’s regime. These measures included the use of United Nations monitoring, verification and inspection teams (UNSCOM, later UNMOVIC) working on the disarmament of Iraq. This inspection regime was conducted under the authority of another UN resolution, UNSCR 687, aimed at ensuring that Iraq had no stockpiles of Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD), and that Iraq could not develop such weapons.

Other measures were implemented, such as the “no-fly zones” which prohibited Iraq from using its aircraft in the North and South of the country, initially to protect the Kurdish and Shia minorities respectively. The US policy aim of removing Saddam from power, and replacing him with a more democratically selected successor, was formally enshrined in the Iraq Liberation Act of 1998 that also provided the US President with the ability to fund Iraqi opposition groups who might be suitable successors to Saddam. Later that year, Operation DESERT FOX was launched, which involved a 4-day bombing campaign against a raft of Iraqi targets, in response to Iraq’s refusal to permit previously inspections of the Ba’ath party Headquarters to take place.

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In the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, the US increased the focus and pace of its investigations into Iraq’s WMD capabilities. In October 2002, the US government passed legislation authorising the use of force against Iraq, following which the UN weapons inspection teams (UNMOVIC) returned to Iraq to continue their inspection and verification work. In the US administration, there was a strong push for military action against Iraq with the primary justification being the probable existence of Iraq WMD capabilities. Much of the material concerning Iraq’s involvement in WMD came from a HUMINT source codenamed CURVEBALL. The source was handled exclusively by the German Federal Intelligence agency, the Bundesnachrichtendienst (BND), with the derived information and Intelligence being passed on to the CIA as a third party. CURVEBALL’s reporting was deeply flawed and was subsequently proved to be false.

After assembling a coalition of partner nations, the US-led invasion of Iraq began on 20 March 2003. On 01 May, President George W. Bush formally declared an end to combat operations in Iraq. There was no clear end to combat operations and no clear beginning to an insurgency in Iraq but 14 years later, the insurgency continues.

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2.     Protagonists

Iraq has a complex cast of protagonists, most of which are armed, some of which are political, but all are nevertheless important within the wider, geopolitical context of Iraq as a zone of conflict.


2.1           Fedayeen Saddam

A paramilitary organisation established in Iraq some years after the first Gulf War of 1991. The organisation was broadly similar in composition and aims to the Iranian Basij paramilitary group and it is possible that the inspiration for the Fedayeen Saddam came from Iraq’s long-term enemy, Iran. The group’s primary role was the protection of the President and unlike other branches of the armed forces, their loyalty was sworn to Saddam Hussein, not to Iraq. Trained in guerrilla warfare, and numbering around 40,000 members, they were to delay any foreign invasion force, to provide sufficient time for negotiations to take place which would ensure the survival of Saddam Hussein as President of Iraq.

2.2     Ba’athists

Former members of Iraq’s Ba’ath party also joined in the armed resistance to the coalition invasion of Iraq in 2003. Disillusioned with the speed at which the Iraqi Armed Forces collapsed in the warfighting phase, many Ba’athists carried out attacks in collaboration with the Fedayeen Saddam.

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2.3     The Sunnis

The initial, non-military resistance to the US-led invasion came primarily from Sunni quarters as the main resistance was from those elements of the Saddam regime who were fighting to repel the invaders, to maintain the status quo of Saddam’s government, and to delay the coalition’s military progress for long enough to provide for the expected negotiations to take place, which would eventually see Saddam and his government returned to power.

Less than 3 months after the declaration of the end of combat operations by Bush, the US Secretary of State for Defense, Donald Rumsfeld, described the insurgents as “dead-enders” and implied that the insurgency itself was on its last legs. The complexity of the Sunni insurgency, however, was and still is more than a sub-stratum of pro-Saddam, pro-Ba’athist loyalists who have refused to accept that the old order is no more.

Eisenstadt et al capture this complexity with their analysis of the wider Sunni insurgency, describing the eclectic range of actors as including “former regime members and Iraqi Islamists, foreign jihadists, angry or aggrieved Iraqis, tribal groups, and criminals, who draw considerable strength from political and religious ideologies, tribal notions of honor and revenge, and shared solidarities deeply ingrained in Iraq’s Sunni Triangle”, and this only covers the Sunni insurgency. The ascendancy of figures such as Abu Musab al Zarqawi, and his “Monotheism and Jihad” group, were a clear example that the Sunni insurgency was not in a terminal phase.

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2.3.1            Zarqawi/AQI/ISI/ISIS

Abu Musab al Zarqawi, a Jordanian national, formed an Islamist group called “Monotheism and Jihad” sometime in the late 1990s, with a primary aim of overthrowing the Jordanian monarchy. Having been arrested and jailed in Jordan, he was eventually released, whereupon he travelled to Afghanistan and established a terrorist training camp in Herat province in 1998. He fought with the Taleban against the US-led invasion in 2001 and managed to escape from Afghanistan, probably into Iran. At some point before the 2003 invasion, it is believed that Zarqawi eventually arrived in Iraq.

Shortly after the invasion of Iraq in 2003, Zarqawi and his group were active in conducting attacks against Coalition forces, especially against US troops. In 2004, Zarqawi pledged allegiance to Osama bin Laden and his Al Qa’eda franchise then rebranded his group as an Al Qa’eda group, usually referred to as “Al Qa’eda in Iraq”, or more usually, AQI. The AQI group became one of the most lethal and high-profile terrorist groups of its time, in large part due to Zarqawi’s tactic of kidnapping (mainly Western) civilians, releasing video footage of the hostages wearing orange jumpsuits (a reference to the inmates held at Guantanamo Bay), and taunting politicians and leaders with impossible demands, before beheading the hostages on camera.

The relationship between Zarqawi and AQ does not appear to have been an easy one and although Zarqawi publicly acknowledged AQ as being in overall command of the campaign in Iraq, in practice he followed his own path. Both Zarqawi and Ayman al Zawahiri (Bin Laden’s deputy) had different visions of the most suitable way to achieve the Caliphate. Zawahiri focused on the “long game” of forcing military defeat on the US and its allies, especially within Muslim lands, and was content for the Caliphate to be achieved at some point in the future, in accordance with AQ’s grand strategy.

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Zarqawi was not content to wait and believed that the most suitable way to achieve victory, and the re-establishment of the Caliphate, was to target the Shia population, thus creating a backlash against his own Sunni people. This tactic was aimed at persuading Iraqi Sunnis that Zarqawi’s group was their only real defender, and thus their best source of protection. To speed up this process, Zarqawi conducted false-flag operations targeting Sunni areas with attacks, to corral the general perception of the Sunnis that they were under sustained attack from the Shia. The viciousness with which Zarqawi operated resulted in massive global media coverage of his group and their methods, but it also set him in confrontation with the senior leadership of AQ.

A letter in 2005 assessed to be from Zawahiri to Zarqawi revealed the wider, 4-stage AQ strategy for Iraq: first, to expel US forces from Iraq; second, to create an Islamic “emirate”, ideally encompassing as much of Iraq as possible; third, to spread AQ’s jihad to Iraq’s secular neighbours; fourth, to confront Israel.  The tone of the letter was more condescending than authoritative, asking Zarqawi rhetorical questions about the effectiveness of his strategy of killing the Shia, and querying whether this anti-Shia effort was not a distraction to carrying out the AQ grand plan. The letter made it clear that Zawahiri, and also AQ by logical extension, did not agree with Zarqawi’s strategy and tactics. Zarqawi was eventually killed by a US airstrike on a safehouse he was using near to Baqubah, in June 2006.

Although the first of the above AQ aims had not been achieved by 2006, it did not stop the Mujahideen Shura Council (MSC) and other associated groups from announcing the formation of the “Islamic State of Iraq” (ISI) in October of that year. The Shia population continued to be targeted just as severely by AQI, who considered the Shia to be heretical. Zarqawi was replaced by Abu Ayyub al Masri, an Egyptian jihadist who assumed command of AQI. When the formation of ISI was declared, Abu Umar al Baghdadi was appointed (reputedly by al Masri) to run the newly formed entity. Both al Masri and al Baghdadi were killed in the same counter-terrorism operation in April 2010, when a joint force of US and Iraqi Special Forces attacked a safe house outside Tikrit.

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2.3.2 Sunni “Awakening”

By 2005, the Sunni tribes in Anbar province in particular were looking inwards for their own protection. Many males from the province, especially former Iraqi military ones, had taken an active part in the resistance against the US-led invasion. There are various theories concerning the genesis of the Awakening movement. The worsening violence in Anbar, the loss of control over traditional smuggling routes, the extreme actions of groups such as AQI, and disillusionment with what the post-Saddam Iraq was metamorphosing into, were all plausible factors in the Awakening movement’s raison d’être.

For certain, the tension between the Albu Mahal and the Al Salmani tribes was a prominent factor in the origins of the movement, containing as it did, elements of all four of the above factors. The Albu Mahals were being forced out of the smuggling business in their traditional areas, by the Al Salmanis. Having controlled the illicit flow of goods and people (including jihadist foreign fighters, funds for the various groups and an array of military materiel) across the Syria-Iraq border in the vicinity of Al Qaim, the Albu Mahal were commercially threatened by the takeover of their enterprise by the Al Salmanis.

As the Al Salmanis were aligned with AQ, the conflict rapidly became violent, with a number of prominent tribal figures from the Albu Mahals being kidnapped and/or killed. The increasing local violence, together with the lack of any meaningful government intervention, led the Albu Mahals to begin negotiations with US commanders in their area. A decision was taken to provide light weapons and funding for the Albu Malah and a number of other tribes, to assist the US troops in countering the presence of AQ in Anbar. As the Albu Mahal and other tribes were almost exclusively Sunni, it was a remarkable step-change in co-opting localised, Sunni support in the fight against AQ.

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This resulted in a loose federation of Sunni tribes engaging in a more co-ordinated, armed resistance to the Islamist groups who were using Anbar as both a staging post on the “Jihadi highway” from Syria into Iraq, as well as for the establishment of a large swathe of relatively safe operating space away from Coalition presence. The tribes had risen against AQ on a number of previous occasions, but these had generally been unsuccessful.

Assessed to number between 65,000-80,000 active fighters at its height, the Awakening movement encompassed more than 40 tribes from the entire province of Anbar, thus representing the vast majority of them.

Much has been written on whether the Surge was successful or not but the stark drop in casualty figures certainly point to it being successful in at least reducing the level of violence in Baghdad and, eventually, in other Iraqi cities. Biddle et al conducted an analysis of the various competing hypotheses and concluded that the Surge was, in fact, successful, but noted that that its success was symbiotically linked to the Sunni Awakening. They confirmed a “synergistic interaction between the surge and the Awakening” to be “the best explanation for why violence declined in Iraq in 2007”.

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2.4     The Shia

The foundations for the Shia insurgency were laid decades ago, with a key milestone being the formation of the Dawa party. Dawa (also referred to as the Islamic Call Party) is an Islamic party formed in the 1950s, and based on the preachings and ideologies of Muhammed Baqir al Sadr, who pressed for a return to Islamic values in society and for the imposition of an Islamic government in Iraq. The Sadrist ideology was strongly Iraqi nationalist and equally strongly anti-Iranian in the 1980s and 1990s. Muhammed Baqir al Sadr was the cousin of Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Sadiq al Sad and was the father-in-law of Muqtada al Sadr (the current leader of the Sadrist movement). His preachings and theories appealed widely to the Iraqi Shia, especially to the poor and the working class. After repeatedly falling foul of Saddam Hussein’s government, he was finally executed in 1980 following a marked increase in Shia agitation which started the previous year.

2.4.1            SCIRI/Badr Organisation

In 1982, various Dawa rejectionists, together with a number of other smaller Shia groups, founded the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) under the leadership of Mohammed Baqir al Hakim, who was a co-founder of Dawa, and who worked closely with Mohammed Baqr al Sadr. SCIRI was formed while Hakim was living in exile in Iran. The creation of a military wing followed, variously referred to at different points in time as the Badr Organisation, the Badr Corps and the Badr Brigades. Based in Iran until the fall of the Saddam regime, the organisation was also funded, trained and equipped by Iran. Many officers in the organisation were IRGC officers and they have been described as being “organizationally indistinguishable from the IRGC”. After the 2003 invasion, they joined in the fighting against Saddam loyalists, especially in the province of Diyala.

Following the end of the allied military campaign (Operation DESERT STORM) in Iraqi in 1991, the Shia minority living in the South of the country took the opportunity to demonstrate their displeasure with the Saddam regime, while the Iraqi military was severely weakened by the warfighting in which it had lost large numbers of troops and equipment.[i] The demonstrations mushroomed into an uprising that quickly spread across the South, where the government lost control of more than 10 cities.

SCIRI sent a large number of armed members from Iran into Iraq, to support the uprising. Saddam deployed Republican Guard units to the South to quell the insurrection, as these units were the only ones remaining that were relatively combat-effective. By early April, the Shia uprising had been put down.

After the 2003 invasion, SCIRI became extremely active politically within Iraq, joining the Shia coalition of the National Iraqi Alliance, which also included the Dawa party, Iraqi Hezbollah and a raft of other, smaller parties.

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2.4.2            JAM/Muqtada al Sadr

The Mehdi Army (usually referred to as Jaysh al Mehdi, or JAM) was formed by Moqtada al Sadr shortly after the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. Moqtada al Sadr is the son of Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Sadiq Sadr who founded the Sadrist movement, and although Moqtada did not formally inherit the Sadrist movement on the death of his father, he nevertheless managed to take control of it, through a combination of patronage, luck and force of personality. At the same time as the battle for Baghdad was raging between Coalition and Iraqi forces, Moqtada al Sadr received a key totem of support which coincided with events in a very fluid, fast-moving, political environment.

On 07 April 2003, Sadr’s primary Iranian mentor and supporter, Ayatollah Kazem al Haeri, made a formal announcement nominating Sadr as his deputy in Iraq. This was significant because Sadr did not have the necessary theological qualifications, experience and respect necessary (for the Shia tradition) to allow him to assume the leadership mantle from his father. As the other key leadership figures from the inner circle of Sadr’s father all looked to the same religious mentor, the decision established Sadr as the de facto successor to his father, and the de jure leader of the Sadrist movement.

The following day, on 08 May, al Ha’eri pronounced a fatwa instructing the Shia of Iraq to seize power in the country. Moqtada established the JAM in August 2004, while he was still under the shadow of an Iraqi government arrest warrant for his involvement in the murder of the exiled cleric Abdel Majid al Khoei who had recently returned to Iraq from London. Khoei was notable in that he was the grandson of the Shia religious figure who was instrumental in an earlier uprising against Saddam Hussein in 1991, after the end of Operation DESERT STORM. Immediately after the killing, a group of radicals (believed to include Sadrists) also surrounded the house of Grand Ayatollah Ali al Sistani, a figure revered by many Iraqi Shia. The group announced that Sistani had 48 hours in which to vacate Iraq. The threat was later rescinded under pressure from trial leaders, probably acknowledging that the threatening of Sistani would widely be seen as a step too far.

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Moqtada established the JAM ostensibly for three reasons: to protect the Shia in Iraq, to help remove the Coalition forces from Iraq, and ultimately to establish a Shia state in Iraq. Young Shia men quickly responded to the call to join, and at its height, the JAM was believed to number around 40,000 active members, with even more sympathisers. Sadr then embarked upon an Iraq-wide expansion programme to open offices across all the major cities, for the organisation called the Office of the Martyr Sadr (OMS).

Tensions quickly increased between the Coalition forces and a major clash occurred in April 2004, close to Najaf, leaving more than 20 dead. Sadr then called on his followers to “terrorise your enemy, God will reward you well for what pleases him”.

As a direct result of his involvement in the murder of al Khoei, and the outstanding arrest warrant against him, Sadr and his political machinery were excluded from the interim power-sharing executive, the Iraqi Governing Council. Following this exclusion, Sadr began a drive to expand and train his own militia. The template for Sadr’s JAM appears to closely mirror that of Lebanese Hezbollah in that it was a populist, nationalist movement concentrated at grass-roots level, with a strong advocacy of the provision of social services, social welfare, urban and rural enhancement projects and a strong drive to integrate the movement’s political ideology into the social and welfare fabric of the local infrastructure.

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For the next 4 years, the JAM formed the primary arm of the Shia insurgency, especially in Southern Iraq where their traditional heartland lay.  Sadr took the war to the Coalition and in the British sector of operations, in Basra (and as far North as Al Amarah, by Maysan province) a sustained campaign of IEDs and ambushes was waged against British forces. US forces were equally targeted in other provinces. Sadr promoted the JAM as the most effective provider of personal and communal security to the Shia. As the JAM expanded to a point where they became integral to Shia society in Iraq, a more unsavoury aspect of the JAM also expanded commensurately, viz. the ascendance of the so-called “death squads”. The sharp increase in killings of Sunnis, especially from areas traditional associated with officials of the former Saddam regime (e.g. the Mansour area of Baghdad), resulted in unwelcome, global awareness of the issue. A former Head of the UN Human Rights Office in Baghdad stated that the majority of the more than 7,000 bodies received by Baghdad mortuary, in just a few months, bore “signs of summary execution – many with their hands tied behind their back. Some showed evidence of torture, with arms and leg joints broken by electric drills”.

2.5     The Iraqi Armed Forces

Before the 2003 invasion, the Iraqi Armed Forces had an assessed strength of around 389,000 full-time troops. Following large losses during the 2003 invasion, the Iraqi Armed Forces were disbanded by the order of the CPA, under CPA order number 2. A new Iraqi Armed Forces was built up, almost from scratch, which resulted in a massive programme of recruiting, equipping, training and mentoring of the new troops. The bulk of this effort was led by the US military, apart from in Basra in Southern Iraq, where the UK took the lead for the training and mentoring. By the summer of 2014, the recruitment and training programme had resulted in a troop strength of around 193,000 Iraqis, at an estimated cost of $25 billion.

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2.6     Iraqi Counter-Terrorism Units (post-2003)

The priority to create an indigenous, Iraqi counter-terrorism Unit was identified as early as the start of Operation Iraqi Freedom II which aimed at rotating out the combat troops who had fought in the warfighting phase of the 2003 invasion. The task fell to the U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM), which was filtered down to specialist SOCOM Units such as the United States Army Special Operations Forces, or ARSOF, who assumed the lead role in the training mission.

The first Iraqi Special Operations Forces (ISOF) were formed in 2003 and the first graduates of a newly-designed Operator Training Course finished training in April 2004. By 2006, a formal hierarchy had been created, with a Counter-Terrorism Service (CTS) sitting at the top-level, underneath which was the Counter-Terrorism Command (CTC) that had operational control of the ISOF Battalions. A steady increase in recruitment and training continued the expansion of ISOF and many of the Iraqi operators were participants in the major battles to clear Basra of the JAM and other militias, in Operation Charge of the Knights. By 2016, the expansion in manpower had to CTS having an established strength of 649 staff and CTC having an established strength of 1,824 staff.

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2.6     Foreign Fighters (FFs)

The phenomenon of “foreign fighters” (FFs) has become commonplace in the international media, regarding the conflicts in Iraq and Syria, in particular. The definition of a FF is complex, and politically contentious, but a working definition provided by Malet is useful to understand the concept: “non-citizens of conflict states who join insurgencies during civil conflicts”.

The model of attracting predominantly young males from around the world, to take part in the jihadist struggle, was well established in Afghanistan, with many of the original AQ leadership being veterans of that conflict in particular. From the early days of the immediate post-9/11 phase, foreigners have travelled to the major conflict zones to take part in jihad. Some have achieved global notoriety, such as John Walker Lindh, the so-called “American Taleban”, and British citizen Mohammed Emwazi, dubbed “Jihadi John” by the British press, who carried out a number of televised beheadings of Western hostages before he was himself killed in an airstrike, as a result of a massive targeting operation by UK and US Intelligence agencies.

One report assesses that as many as 31,000 foreigners have travelled to Iraq and Syria to fight for the jihadist groups, but this is likely to err on the low side, given the difficulties of collecting accurate statistics in such an environment. More than 5,000 of these FFS come from EU countries, but there is an internal density within the figures which shows that 3,700 of these European FFs came from just 4 countries: in order of magnitude, these were France, UK, Germany and Belgium. Foreign fighters not only swell the numbers of the combat troops available to the terrorist groups, but they also create a potential “fifth column” upon their return to their countries of origin, which is of major concern to the Intelligence and security agencies of countries which have been traditional supplies of FFs.

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2.7     The Kurds

The Kurds are estimated to constitute between 15-20% of Iraq’s total population. They are an integral component of the concept of Iraq as a zone of conflict, as their various armed groups have fought with the Armed Forces of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, Turkey, Iran and Syria, as well as more latterly with the so-called Islamic State. In addition to these State-level conflicts, the Kurdish groups have also fought against each other.

Figure 1: The Kurdish region (BBC News, 2016)

2.7.1            KDP

The Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) is probably the largest Kurdish group within Iraq’s borders. The party is led by Masoud Barzani who has been President of the Parliament of Iraqi Kurdistan since 2005. His father, Mustafa Barzani, fought against British Forces during the period of the British Mandate. The Iraqi Constitution adopted after the revolution in 1958 did provide for recognition of Kurdish as a nationality but it was eventually dropped. This resulted in the KDP engaging in armed rebellion with the Iraqi government. Various ceasefires came and went with no lasting effect.

2.7.              PUK

The Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) was formed in 1975 by Jalal Talabani, following his split with the KDP. It is considered the second-largest of the Kurdish groups in Iraq. The political differences between Barzani and Talabani manifested themselves in various bouts of internecine conflict, such as the so-called Fratricide Wars from 1994-1998. More than one major, political volte-face happened during this conflict. Talabani was elected President of Iraq in 2005.

2.7.3            PKK

The Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) is a Kurdish group formed in the early 1970s, that has fought a long-term, armed conflict with Turkey. Although its main focus is on the creation of a separate Kurdish State within Turkey, it is an actor in the Iraq zone of conflict due to its use of Iraqi territory as a safe haven, a tactic which has resulted in repeated armed incursions by Turkey, into Iraqi territory. The PKK is a predominantly Marxist group.

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2.8               Iran and Iranian surrogates

Iran has played a very important, but at times very subtle, role in the post-invasion environment of Iraq. Skilled in the use of proxies to further political aims, Iran has directed the activities of a range of actors in support of her external agenda. Sadr’s JAM was a direct beneficiary of funding, support and guidance from senior clerical figures such as Ayatollah Kazem al Haeri. The Badr Brigades/Corps/Organisation was so closely integrated into the Iranian Armed Forces that it could have passed as an indigenous Unit. Hezbollah (Lebanese, as well as other derivatives), enjoyed direct funding, receipt of sophisticated military equipment, and direct support from IRGC when necessary.

Iranian operatives from Special Forces Units, such as the Quds Force, have been compromised and arrested in Iraq, including senior leaders such as Mahmoud Farhaid who was identified as being involved in the clandestine trafficking of weapons from Iran to insurgent.

Iranian mentoring and support to anti-coalition groups was evidenced in a rapid increase in the accuracy of the frequent mortar attacks launched against Sunni neighbourhoods, multi-confessional marketplaces, coalition bases and the Green Zone in Baghdad. Also noteworthy was the transfer of lethal technological capabilities in the manufacturing and deployment of Explosively Formed Penetrators (EFPs).

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2.9               US Forces and Coalition Forces

The US provided the largest contingent of troops in the “coalition of the willing” which conducted the invasion of Iraq in 2003. The US contribution was around 150,000 troops for the invasion phase, followed by the UK which contributed around 45,000 troops, then Australia, with around 2,000 troops, and Poland with 194 troops. In all, 49 nations provided troops[ii] although only four of these provided troops for the actual ground invasion (USA, UK, Australia and Poland), with the remainder providing troops after the completion of the invasion in support roles.

By the final withdrawal of US combat troops in August 2010, the US had lost 4,487 personnel, the UK had lost 179 personnel, Poland had lost 23 personnel and Australia had lost 2 personnel. The numbers of US forces largely remained somewhere between 100,000 to 150,000 throughout the main US deployment in Iraq, although this was bolstered by an additional 30,000 troops during “the Surge”, as previously mentioned. The following graph shows the numbers of US troops deployed in Iraq, from the 2003 invasion, through to the final withdrawal of combat troops in 2011:

Figure 2: Graph showing numbers of US troops deployed in Iraq (BBC News, 2008)

Due to the variety of statistical methodologies employed by various research institutes, when detailing figures of troop deployments in Iraq, there is considerable variance in numbers attributed to troop totals. While it is difficult to attribute any one method as being more, or less, accurate than others, there is an argument for using the “boots on the ground” total as a representative figure. A highly-detailed report produced for the US Senate examines this topic in intricate detail, even down to assessing the actual dollar-bill costs of maintaining an individual US Brigade in Iraq. The report clarifies its approach as follows:


The most commonly cited measure of troop strength is “Boots on the Ground” or the number of troops located in Afghanistan and in Iraq…. although Boots on the Ground is the most commonly cited measure of troop strength, that measure does not include over 100,000 other troops deployed in the region providing theater-wide support for Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF), the Afghan War, and Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF), the Iraq War.

The annual totals of “boots on the ground” troops in Iraq, from the 2003 invasion through to the 2011 withdrawal of US combat troops, is provided in the table below:

Fiscal Year Troop numbers in Iraq
FY2002 0
FY2003 67700
FY2004 130600
FY2005 143800
FY2006 141100
FY2007 148300
FY2008 157800
FY2009 135600
FY2010 88300
FY2011 42800
FY2012 4100

Table 1: The “boots on the ground” number of US troops in Iraq from 2002 to 2012


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3.     Nature of the Conflict

In the space of just 14 years, the nature of the conflict in Iraq has traversed a wide scale of methods, justifications and complexity, beginning with battlefield combat between uniformed protagonists which generally conformed to the laws of international armed conflict, through to a variety of insurgent/terrorist campaigns which targeted innocent individuals in an effort to coerce support from the population, to the wholesale targeting of ethno-religious groupings of all those who were deemed to constitute the opposition or the enemy.

3.1     2003 Invasion

The ground invasion of Iraq was carried out between 19 March–30 April 2003. The military operation itself was a swift affair and, with some exceptions, the Iraqi ground forces collapsed relatively quickly in the face of the Allied operation. At this point the conflict in Iraq was one between State-level Armed Forces, generally well disciplined and uniformed. Since the end of the first Gulf War in 1990-91, Saddam and his inner circle had long planned on countering any ground invasion through a series of delaying strategies and tactics, all designed to buy time at the negotiating table which would hopefully allow for the continued existence of their regime. One of these tactics was the use of harassing forces such as the Fedayeen Saddam.

3.2     Harassing attacks

As the coalition advanced further into Iraq, and as Iraqi ground forces were defeated, the supply and communication lines necessary to support the advancing units became longer and more thinly stretched. The tactic of attacking these stretched supply lines was a classic one of harrying the opponent, requiring more resources to be deployed in a force protection capacity, and generally contributing to the debilitation of the overall advance.

The Fedayeen employed a range of tactics including IEDs, armed ambushes, rocket and mortar attacks and sniping engagements to attrit the coalition forces on their advance to Baghdad. They were also supported by disgruntled elements of the Iraqi Armed Forces who still wanted to fight the occupying coalition forces. In December 2003, US convoys were ambushed twice as they transited through Samarra. The ambushes turned into pitched battles resulting in 46 of the attackers killed and six US members injured. Unusually, the ambushers were mainly wearing the uniform of the Fedayeen, possibly to broadcast a clear message to the local population that there was still an armed and organised Iraqi resistance, loyal to the old regime.

The clandestine nature of the Coalition’s opposition increased as quickly as the uniformed Iraqi Armed Forces were being overrun. Fedayeen and Ba’athist attacks increased as the coalition supply lines became stretched, due to the unexpected pace of the advance. Only months after the fall of the Saddam regime, Zarqawi’s group was highly active in a campaign of IEDs, car bombs, kidnappings and murders that targeted coalition troops, Sunni residential neighbourhoods and Shia activists. With insufficient troop numbers to maintain internal security, coalition troops were unable to prevent the country from sliding into a state of chaotic insecurity.

Any opportunity to blunt the ferocity of the armed opposition by former Ba’athists, by assimilating moderate, former Ba’ath party members into post-Saddam Iraqi civic society, evaporated when Paul Bremer’s Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) announced the de-Ba’athification of Iraqi society as one if its main policy pillars, through the passing of Order Number 1 in May, 2003. Under this edict, former members of the Ba’ath party were prohibited from working in the civil service, the Armed Forces or almost all public-sector jobs.

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