Iraq War 2003: Background & Lessons

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August 12, 2003

Baghdad Bombing Continues to Raise Issues; HizbAllah Attacks on Northern Israel Appear Linked to Broader Tehran-Damascus Aspirations

Analysis. By Jason Fuchs, GIS staff. The August 7, 2003, terrorist-style bombing in Baghdad, the escalation of HizbAllah attacks from Lebanon into Israel and other evidence now points to a comprehensive effort by Iran and Syria to distract US from expanding its “war on terror” to focus on Iran and Syria.

The sponsors of the August 7, 2003 , bombing of the Jordanian Embassy in Baghdad remained unclear as of August 10, 2003 , as GIS sources noted “contradictory forensic evidence” at the scene which left the perpetrators as yet unknown. While US officials in the days following the strike had raised the possibility of Ansar al-Islam involvement, GIS sources maintained that this was based more on public relations than fact. A credible report in the UK’s The Daily Telegraph on August 10, 2003 , suggested that the bomb used may have been constructed in Syria , but GIS sources could not independently confirm this.

US officials on August 8-9, 2003 , emphasized that the bombing of the Jordanian Embassy in Baghdad had been an externally organized operation. Lt.-Gen. Norton Schwartz, the Director of Operations for the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, suggested that the bin Laden-linked “Kurdish” Islamist group Ansar al-Islam may have been involved. The professionalism of the strike was evident; a minivan filled with explosives had reportedly been parked in front of the embassy on the night of August 6, 2003 , and detonated the following morning by rocket-propelled grenades fired from a separate vehicle by a four-man team. In an interview with The New York Times on August 9, 2003 , Chief Executive of the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) L. Paul Bremer added: “The intelligence suggests that Ansar al-Islam is planning large-scale terrorist attacks here. So as long as we have, as I think we do, substantial numbers of Ansar terrorists around here I think we have to be pretty alert to the fact that we may see more of this.” The attack, which killed 19 and injured some 60, was the most well-coordinated attack to date by Iraqi resistance groups, and came during a time of increasing frustration from many circles regarding the growing effectiveness of the Coalition reconstruction operation.

Notably, the Coalition had on August 9, 2003 , reached an agreement with the major tribal leaders of the central Iraqi town of Fallujah facilitated by the town’s mayor, Taha Bdewi Hamid Al-Alwani. The understanding centered on increased cooperation between local Fallujah citizens and Coalition forces to help stop the attacks on Coalition troops, most of which had occurred in the so-called Sunni Arab Triangle bordered within the area between Baghdad, Tikrit, and ar-Ramadi. The significance of seven major Sunni Arab tribal leaders signing any agreement with the Coalition would not be lost on Saddam Hussein and his supporters. Furthermore, while the announcement in the first week of August 2003 that the bounty on Coalition troops had been raised from US$1,000 to US$5,000 may have portended increased attacks on Coalition forces in the short term, the apparent necessity to raise the price for such strikes spoke volumes about the difficulties Saddam was encountering finding Iraqi allies outside his immediate circle of stalwart Special Republican Guards, Saddam Fedayeen, and Ba’athist loyalists [this force of Saddam allies, by some credible reports, numbered as high as 60,000].

Yet, Saddam had found no such shortage of non-Iraqi fighters supplied by Iran and Syria .

Both Tehran and Damascus remained suspicious of US intentions in the region, and constantly conscious of the possibility of US military action against their respective nations. The continued presence of some 167,000 Coalition forces in neighboring Iraq had done nothing to assuage this concern. Although the bulk of US forces remained focused on reconstruction and rebuilding in Iraq , the Iranian and Syrian leaderships were evidently wary of the potential for them to turn their attention to targeting the leaderships in Tehran or Damascus .

Thus, the driving force behind the joint Iranian-Syrian post-Saddam Iraq policy was a perceived need to facilitate an increasingly deadly and difficult post-conflict situation for US and Coalition forces [the much feared “quagmire” in US and Western circles and the much vaunted “jihad” on the Arab and Muslim “street”, respectively]. Iraq, in the circumstances anticipated and actively encouraged by Tehran and Damascus, would become first a distraction from any possible move against Iran or Syria, second a warning against any US intervention in the Middle East, and last, in the long term, a renewed ally and link in a resurgent Tehran-Damascus-Baghdad axis.  

While there was, by August 11, 2003 , no solid basis for reports of Ansar al-Islam involvement in the August 7, 2003 , bombing in Baghdad , GIS sources stressed that there was no doubt that Ansar al-Islam members were filtering back into Iraq from Iran with the help of the Iranian Government. The Ayatollah Khamene‘i Government and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC or Pasdaran) had sustained the Northern Iraq-based group and facilitated the escape of hundreds of its members [and, importantly, its leadership] into Iran after Ansar’s primary bases in and around Bayara had been destroyed in Coalition air and Special Forces raids during March-April 2003 Iraq War. 

Tehran ’s decision to redeploy the group — infiltrating its members back into Iraq starting in April 2003 and continuing through August 2003 — was a significant move. While Iran maintains strong ties with the Ayatollah Mohammed Baker al-Hakim-led Badr Brigades, Ansar al-Islam was an ideal strategic tool for Iranian anti-Coalition actions in Iraq; its strong ties to Iraqi intelligence allow for better integration of operations with the Saddam-led forces than would the Badr Brigades [which have a history of antagonism with the now-deposed Saddam Government]. Additionally, the group’s linkage with the bin Laden group provides a ready stream of Sunni Islamists, trained and ready for martyrdom operations, a tactic which had, by early August 2003, failed to play a key rôle in the Iraqi resistance. Because of their operational efficiency and propaganda value, it could be anticipated that suicide missions would play a larger rôle in the future, particularly with the increasing presence of Islamist and non-Iraqi forces.

On the issue of Iranian actions in Iraq, Dr Assad Homayoun, head of the Washington DC-based Iranian opposition group, the Azadegan Foundation, and Senior Fellow at the International Strategic Studies Association (ISSA), told GIS on August 10, 2003: “Iran wants to bring pressure on the US both in Iraq and Afghanistan to decrease US pressure on the Iranian regime. These operations almost certainly involved the Pasdaran.” Dr Homayoun noted the ongoing presence of al-Qaida leaders in Iran under the Government’s protection as related to these efforts.

GIS/Defense & Foreign Affairs had documented the rôle of Iranian and Islamist forces in Iraq in a May 30, 2003 , exclusive report which noted:

Very well-placed first-hand sources reported to GIS/Defense & Foreign Affairs Daily on May 29, 2003 , that officials working directly with Iranian Minister of Intelligence & Security Hojjat ol-Eslam (Mohammad) Ali Yunesi have reportedly met in recent days in Tehran with officials of the Iraqi Ba’ath Party to discuss the formation of a new terrorist operation to target US interests.


As well, other sources in Tehran, confirming the meetings, said that there was also a strong possibility that the Iraqi Ba’athists also met with former Iranian Pres. Hojjat ol-Eslam Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani — the key power in current Iranian strategic policy — and possibly with the Supreme Leader, “Ayatollah  Ali Hoseini-Khamene‘i, in order that the senior Iranian clerics could satisfy themselves that such a link with the Iraqi Ba’athists, who are Sunni Muslims, could be trusted not to go against the plans of the Iranian Shi’a leaders. However, there is now strong evidence that the Iraqi Ba’athists, who are by definition secular socialists as well as mostly Sunni Muslims, are working very closely both with the Iranians and with the radical Islamists.

Sources within the bin Laden group — nominally called al-Qaida — told GIS/Defense & Foreign Affairs in late May 2003 that some of the attacks inside Iraq against US troops were conducted by combined Ba’athist-Islamist forces.

The precise purpose of the HizbAllah attacks on Northern Israel was, through August 11, 2003 , still unclear. HizbAllah had promised revenge attacks for the July 2003 killing of one of its members, Ali Saleh, in a Beirut car bombing the group blames on Israel . Saleh had reportedly worked as a driver for the Iranian Embassy in Beirut . Regardless, GIS sources confirmed that the HizbAllah strikes could not have been carried out without permission from Tehran and Damascus .  


The shelling and Katyusha missile attacks on Northern Israel appeared to represent a key component of the Iranian-Syrian strategy. Both states recognize the need to reassert their ability to threaten Israel and, in turn, remind the US that Tehran and Damascus still retain the capability to spark a regional war involving the Jewish state if the US “dared” to take action against Syria or Iran . The attack, which included anti-aircraft munitions fired from South Lebanese HizbAllah positions laterally at IDF targets, struck the Israeli radar facility on Mt. Dov, a key node of the IDF’s strategic defense planning [specifically an early warning tool] for a Syrian invasion through Southern Lebanon.

As critical, Syria and Iran appeared intensely aware of the upcoming US presidential elections in November 2004. The aggressive actions of the US Bush Administration in Afghanistan and Iraq and harsh rhetoric toward Syria, Iran, and North Korea, in contrast to the policies of former US Pres. William Clinton, seemed to emphasize the need to affect a change of government in Washington. The Democrats, the US opposition party, had, by August 2003, yet to choose its candidate, but the widespread criticism within the party of the Bush Administration’s handling of the “war on terror”, in particular the war in Iraq , provided a welcome alternative to Pres. Bush. While no specific intelligence was available, there were strong indications that, Tehran and Damascus, which had used terror attacks in attempts to affect the outcome of Israeli presidential elections, viewed the use of a similar tactic as necessary to remove Pres. Bush.

One GIS source recalled that Iran, in particular, had been “obsessed” with US elections ever since its ability to influence the 1980 US presidential election that saw Ronald Reagan defeat incumbent US Pres. Jimmy Carter in a landslide. The defeat of Pres. Carter came, in part, because of the hostage situation at the US Embassy in Tehran which occurred under Pres. Carter’s watch.


Thus, the eventual “full” violation of the hudna as well as increased HizbAllah bombardments could be expected to further these ends. US Pres. Bush had maintained high ratings in polls since the September 11, 2001, attacks, largely because of his foreign policy. That foreign policy, as of August 2003, stood on three cornerstones:


1.The successful war in Iraq as a prelude to a free, democratic Arab ally.

2.The US-backed Israeli-Palestinian Roadmap to ease tension in the region.

3.The successful prevention of another spectacular terror attack on US soil.


In Iraq, Tehran and Damascus sought to create a destabilizing situation which could viably appear to the US public as a military “quagmire” to prove the failure of the Iraq War. In Israel, they sought to re-ignite the Palestinian intifada and, perhaps, goad Israel into military action in Southern Lebanon to prove the failure of Pres. Bush’s roadmap. And in the US homeland, they sought to facilitate another spectacular attack to prove the failure of the US “war on terror”, and, in turn, affect “regime change” in Washington. Iran and Syria clearly seek to regain the strategic initiative and place the US back on the defensive. Removing the US Bush Administration has emerged as a significant long-term component of that effort.