Speaking to US soldiers in Iraq always comes with its share of difficulties.
Crackling voices and disrupted connections mar the conversation.
Lt.-Col. James Downing of the US 82nd Airborne Division is an adviser to Iraq’s 15th Infantry Division. Last month the division helped liberate Tal Afar from Islamic State and is now preparing for new operations.
Iraq is in its third year of war with the extremists and American officers like Downing are playing a key role in supporting it as they have since the US-led invasion of 2003 that toppled Saddam Hussein.
Through the spotty connection Downing looks back on 14 years of war.
“I’ve been very impressed with how far [the Iraqis] came. Their ability to fight and sustain themselves over long distances and operations, to plan and execute operations and integrate their attack helicopters and indirect fire,” he says. Downing has served in Iraq three times in the last decade and a half. He has been part of key turning points in the country’s recent history and worked with the Iraqi security forces since the US and its allies first began rebuilding them.
The US led an invasion of Iraq in March 2003. In April the statue of Saddam was yanked down in Baghdad’s Firdos Square, symbolizing the end of his brutal rule and the start of a new era. Downing arrived in Iraq as a captain in the 1st Cavalry Division when it deployed to Iraq in early 2004. “When you look at 2004 there is a period from the major ground conflict of 2003 to spring 2004 where not much happened except reconstruction.” His armored division was busy aiding rebuilding of Baghdad. He says 90% of their efforts were concentrated on these infrastructure tasks and also on “rebuilding the security forces.”
The US Coalition Provisional Authority under Paul Bremer had dissolved the Iraqi Armed Forces in May 2003, sending around 350,000 men packing. Years later during the insurgency and the rise of ISIS, this decision would be criticized for leaving men out of work and fueling extremism. When the US and its allies sought to rebuild they initially called them the Iraqi Civil Defense Corp and later the Iraqi National Guard. “They became the [new] Iraqi Army by the time I left,” recalls Downing. During his 14 months in Iraq, the US also began planting the seeds for Iraqi special forces, the unit now called the “Golden Division” or Iraqi Special Operations Forces, who have led the fight against ISIS.
The first signs of the Iraqi insurgency began in earnest in 2004.
In March of that year insurgents attacked a convoy of US military contractors in Falluja, killing, mutilating and hanging four of their bodies from a bridge. It took the US the rest of the year to re-take Falluja. In November, 13,000 men assaulted the city and cleared it of groups like al-Qaida and the Islamic Army in Iraq.
The insurgents quickly grew in numbers and complexity of weapons they used, such as “improvised explosive devices” or IEDs. “In 2004 we were talking about very rudimentary and not well concealed IEDs triggered mostly by the victim,” recalls Downing. “They evolved rapidly to remotely operated, using cell phones and booby traps.” There were also the first car bombs against US forces and civilians.
“I’m not sure what drove that but by the time I came back in 2006 for the Surge, there was al-Qaida in Iraq and if they said they wanted 10 car bombs to go off in Baghdad, [it happened.”
Al-Qaida and other groups came to occupy Sunni Arab areas of Iraq, which the US referred to as “ungoverned spaces.” Basically these were areas that, due to the weakness of the new Iraqi government, fell to these local forces.
That changed in 2007 when the US upped its troop numbers from around 130,000 to 150,000 during the Surge to defeat the insurgency.
“I switched to be a company commander and then from November 2006 to February 2008 I operated all over Iraq, mainly targeting extremist organizations such as al-Qaida and the Islamic State of Iraq,” says Downing. Al-Qaida leader abu Musab al-Zarqawi was killed in June 2006 when F-16s dropped two 500-pound bombs on his safe house near Baqubah.
But the insurgency didn’t go away. Downing fought near Falluja, where his unit had fought in 2004, and near Ramadi, southern Baghdad and along the Diyala River.
They fought to keep the Iraqis out. We would air assault in and go over their defensive IEDs and attack them in their sanctuaries,” he recalls. The battle for towns and villages was similar to fighting ISIS.
“The number of foreign fighters was less,” and the overall numbers of insurgents was less.
The US led the way in the battle against the insurgents, but Iraqis also took part. “It was very security dependent, so in more secure areas the ratio [of Iraqis to Americans] would be much lower and in those areas with higher threat, more coalition forces.” He says there wasn’t a single operation that did not include Iraqi partner forces.
“They were growing and learning, I can see the seeds in the security forces today, those junior officers are officers [today]. They grew from the seeds we planted back then,” he says.
He also stresses that after 2008 the Iraqi forces also developed as the US troops presence was drawn down. The Sunni allied tribal forces also played a key role in defeating jihadists.
However between 2009 and 2014 ISIS was able to put down new roots and between June and August 2014 it swept aside Iraqi divisions around Mosul and took over a large area of central Iraq, carrying out massacres and genocide. “I was surprised at that rapid level of advance,” says Downing, who was then in the US.
“We didn’t know at that time we would be asked to assist. I was not surprised when the Iraqi government asked us to help.”
He arrived back in Iraq in January 2017 during the height of the Mosul offensive. He describes ISIS as a “hybrid force” that blend conventional and unconventional fighting. ISIS has also been defeated because of the US ability to use its overwhelming air power to target it. “If they have a tank they got from somewhere, it was very easy to identify, [while] vehicle based IEDs are more tricky. So it had an unconventional tilt. They have a conventional capability, of mortars and machine guns.”
Whereas the model in 2007 was working with much smaller Iraqi units such as companies and platoons, the US has been advising brigades and divisions now. “They bring it all to bare and integrated with the Iraqi Federal police and Iraqi Special Operations Forces and that’s some stuff we constantly work on as American forces with our joint forces, that’s an inter-government type force. That’s as tough as it gets really,” Downing says.
This may be the model going forward as the US seeks to assist numerous countries in the world that are under threats from terrorists.
This includes countries with “ungoverned spaces” where groups like ISIS can put down roots, such as in the Sinai in Egypt, Afghanistan, the tribal areas of Pakistan, southern Philippines, Somalia, Nigeria and elsewhere. “I am proud of what our paratroopers accomplished and helped the Iraqis accomplished, for me yes, it is a good model, how much or how little we use it going forward that remains to be seen. I would not be surprised to see us use it more for security situations, it’s not something
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