This phase began around March and lasted until November 2004.

Overall: Al-Qaeda in Iraq took command of a decentralized insurgency. Sunni Tribes, former Ba’athists and indigenous Salafis launched a major attack against US forces from the Sunni Triangle. Insurgent forces captured a number of cities and posed a worse threat to the US than any other insurgent period.

Major events
-First few months of 2004 were relatively calm following the defeat of the Ba’athist insurgency.

-Izzat Ibrahim ad-Douri took over command of the Ba’ath Party following Saddam Hussein’s capture. He tried to govern from Syria, as far as we know, but the resistance movements splintered into a number of smaller self-led groups. The Ba’athist insurgency collapsed.

-Gen. Petraeus began the training of Iraqi Security Forces. Force strength increased from essentially 0 to over 100,000 by the end of the year.

-Abu Musab al-Zarqawi takes command of Al-Qaeda in Iraq and organizes a confederacy of decentralized tribes and insurgent organizations.

Zarqawi creates a population-based Sunni Insurgency between March and Dember of 2004.

  •  Asymmetrical tactics. Car Bombs, Suicide Bombers, IED mines.
  • Very large military deployments of 1,000 – 5,000 insurgents to capture and hold territory
  • Passive logistical support from Sunni population
  • Al-Qaeda attacked Shia pilgrimages and shrines
  • Insurgents captured and defended Fallujah, Ramadi and other cities

The situation appeared like this:

The insurgency needed supplies. Their logistical lines in the Sunni Triangle relied on trade routes along the Tigris and Euphrates River. Syria provided material support for Sunni insurgency. Without steady supplies, the insurgency would fragment and grow weaker.

Battle of the Tigris River: The Kurds and Americans held the city of Mosul and intecepted traffic moving down the Tigris River. This helped pacify the Ninawa and Saladin Provinces. Sunni Insurgents attempted to contest and capture Mosul but failed. Tigris is relatively secured as a result.

The US largely won the battles along the Tigris and prevented major insurgent operations.

Battle of the Euphrates River: US forces could not stop the flow of traffic from Syria through the Anbar Province. Insurgent supplies passed through the border through the cities of Al Qa’im, Al Hadithah, Hit, Ramadi, and Al Fallujah to the suburbs of Baghdad.

This provides a “highway” to Baghdad. Car Bombs could be produced for $100k and sent to Baghdad to strike civilian targets. Other Insurgent Forces concentrated their efforts at capturing and holding these critical cities in Anbar.

Insurgent Forces concentrated in Fallujah and made it the primary base of operations for offenses against Baghdad. Insurgent Forces numbered an estimated 5,000 fighters – mostly locals. They were supported by other elements of the population, probably numbering in the tens of thousands. Other large 1,000 plus-sized forces occupied other critical cities in Anbar.

Flaws in Sunni Strategy
-Zarqawi’s attacks on Shia pilgrims prevented an alliance of Shia-Sunni Insurgent Forces that would have overthrown the US Provisional Government.
-Foreign Islamist leaders quickly abandoned Sunni Tribes and local fighters in key battles.
-Islamists, domestic and foreign, attacked Iraqi Civilians. Sunni Tribes and ex-Ba’athists disapproved of these tactics, causing friction between insurgents.
-Sunni Insurgents attempted to use Urban Insurgency tactics to fend off US counter-attacks, similar to the Chechen Strategy against the Russians. When this failed, the Sunnis had no alternative plan.

US Counterattack:
-The US focused on Enemy-centric tactics to disrupt Insurgent Organizations and disrupt their supply-lines on the Euphrates
-The US trained Iraqi Police and Army units to “hold” and pacify territory after US forces cleared them.
-The US concentrated its forces and attacked Fallujah twice – in April and November of 2004.
-Operation Phantom Thunder captured Fallujah in November 2004 and broke the center of gravity of the Sunni Populist Insurgency.
-US Forces rapidly advanced up the Euphrates River, capturing Ramadi, Al Hadithah, and al Qa’im. US Forces attempted to seal the Syrian border to disrupt insurgent logistics.

Flaws in US Strategy
-Iraqi Security Forces were too weak and untrained to provide much assistance, nor could they hold territory.
-Enemy-centric tactics did not break the morale of Sunni Tribes. It only disrupted their material capabilities.
-The US did not respond to Syria’s open and obvious intervention in the war. Syria created a permanent and secure base of operations for Insurgent Forces outside of Iraq.

– US Forces defeated the populist insurgency in military terms. Insurgent Forces were scattered and leaderless in the first quarter of 2005.
-Insurgent Forces would never again organize into units larger than 100-200 men. Congregating 5,000 fighters in Fallujah proved too costly an error to repeat.
-The US was victorious at its most vulnerable moment. The Iraqi Government and Security Forces were not yet strongly established. The Population-based insurgency in Anbar Province failed to cause a nation-wide insurgency or to capture Baghdad.

American Forces defeated this insurgency and future insurgents would not pose such an existential threat to the new Iraqi Government. However, lack of a political victory in Anbar allowed a new resistance movement to form and begin a third insurgency.