GIS Special Topical Studies
Iraq War 2003: Background, Lessons and Follow-On

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June 30, 2004

New Iranian Deployments on Iraq Border; Washington, Baghdad Brace for July Offensive

Analysis. By Jason Fuchs, GIS UN Correspondent. GIS sources revealed that the widely-reported June 2004 movement of four divisions of the Iranian regular Army to forward positions near the border with southern Iraq marked only the beginning of a larger Iranian force redeployment. As of June 28, 2004, GIS sources reported that six divisions had now been relocated to the border. Further, GIS sources noted that when these movements are in place, Tehran would have shifted at least 20 divisions to the Iraqi border. Although GIS sources maintained that, for the time being, the Iranian troop movements remained “deterrent-minded”, the deployments were likely to raise further concerns about Iranian intentions in Iraq for both Washington and Baghdad.

The Iranian redeployment was particularly alarming at a time when the Coalition and the new interim Iraqi Government were in the midst of preparing for the planned July 2004 escalation in the Iraqi intifada. GIS sources noted that Coalition intelligence was, by June 29, 2004, aware of the infiltration of some 300 Chechen fighters into the country throughout the month of June 2004. These fighters had entered through Iran and included a number of Chechnya-based Arab Islamists. By late June 2004, Washington had made it clear that it knew of the infiltration, with a published report by the Coalition-backed Iraqi daily al-Sabah on June 22, 2004, on the infiltration of Chechen fighters through Iraq’s southern borders with Iran. While the report downplayed the magnitude of the threat — claiming the movement involved only “tens of Chechen fighters” — the Iranian leadership would hear a different message.

The newly-infiltrated Chechen fighters added to the already robust insurgent/guerilla force which was readying to escalate its battle to force the withdrawal of Coalition forces and effect the removal of the new Iraqi Government. GIS sources detailed that the aggregate insurgent force which the Coalition now faced numbered anywhere between 100,000 and 125,000 fighters as of late June 2004, excluding support elements. This force included as many as 18,750 foreign “volunteers”.

Furthermore, heavy weaponry which the Iraqi military had concealed during “major combat operations” in March-April 2003 — particularly during early April 2003 in the run-up to the Coalition taking of Baghdad — had begun, by late June 2004, to re-emerge on the battlefield. In particular, GIS sources said, Iraqi military artillery, mortars, and rocket launchers which had been hidden for more than a year had recently been brought back into operational. GIS sources described the heavy weapons as being in “excellent shape”. The re-appearance of the “vanished” Iraqi military weapons stockpiles evidenced the seriousness with which the insurgency was approaching the upcoming planned escalation and, as well, appeared to be, at least in part, the result of vastly improved relations and cooperation between the Ba’athist elements and the disparate foreign Islamists/jihadists as one result of an agreement undertaken between the two parties at ad-Dur on June 18, 2004. 

See Defense & Foreign Affairs Daily, June 21, 2004: Iraqi Ba’athist Forces Formally Submit to Islamist Control.

As well, GIS sources added, former Ba’athist Administration elements on “good working terms” with the Osama bin Laden-linked Iraq-based Islamist commander, Abu Iyad al-Filastini, retained a significant number of battle-ready Iraqi Army tanks that had been moved into hiding to avoid destruction by Coalition bombing before US-led forces captured Baghdad on April 9, 2003. There was a strong likelihood, though, that insurgents would not bring this force aspect to bear until the threat of a rapid US aerial response was removed. The same deterrent which had prevented their use in April 2003 appeared equally ominous for anti-Coalition forces in July 2004. Nevertheless, it could be expected that finding and destroying these resources, particularly heavy weaponry like tanks, would prove critical to securing the stability of the new Iraqi Government in the longer term.

More critical to achieving security in the short term, particularly in the upcoming several months, was reaching some form of resolution to the continuing threat from Sunni Islamist fighters now in control of most of the central Iraqi city of Falluja. While “ex”-Ba’athists organized by the Coalition in the form of the Falluja Brigade continued to “patrol” certain parts of the city, it was clear that these units were not acting against the insurgents who continued to operate with virtually complete autonomy within Falluja.

Coalition advocates of “restraint” in handling the Falluja situation in hopes of a political dénouement instead of a “military climax” — in the words of US Secretary of State Colin Powell — had hoped that this might ease tensions with the Sunni militants in the city. Yet, by late June 2004, there was no indication that the desired effect had taken root. Instead, the Sunni Islamists, led by Abu Musab Zarqawi, who operated in-and-out of Falluja, remained as determined as ever to attack the new Government and its Coalition backers, particularly to undermine the interim Administration of Prime Minister Iyad al-Allawi and Pres. Ghazi al-Yawer. Essentially hand-in-hand with this goal was convincing the Iraqi people of the new Government’s illegitimacy, for as much as the Afghan Administration of Pres. Hamid Karzai had been criticized and lamented in the West, its burgeoning if unsteady effectiveness and legitimacy within Afghanistan, often the result of power-sharing agreements with regional warlords, had proven a tangible grass-roots threat to the Taliban and Islamist rebel opposition. The threat of a similar scenario in Iraq loomed.

As Zarqawi had explained in a June 23, 2004, audiotape: “The Karzai Government formula has been an idea that received apparent acceptance and success in Afghanistan. Then let the experience be repeated and let the nation here in Iraq be deceived. Let the prescription of the new trickery be presented in the form of a democratic Iraqi Government. But this has become a lackluster opportunity.” Later in the recording Zarqawi returned to this theme for a second time, connecting it to the Falluja crisis, warning: “Beware! Beware of a tremendous plot hatched by the Americans with the new Karzai of Iraq to rob the victory that was achieved by your sons in Al-Falluja. You are aware that the United States … was planning to humiliate all the men of Al-Falluja and to violate their honor to avenge the dignity that it lost on the doorsteps of this city. However, they were amazed — and their leaders and masters acknowledged that — at the unmatched bravery and courage that they faced. Their arrows went astray and their troops retreated in defeat and humiliation.”

It seemed evident that the insurgent collective, including not only the foreign Sunni Islamists and large swathes of former Saddam Administration elements, but also Iranian-controlled Shi’ite forces, some in key operational leadership roles over ostensibly non-Shi’ite groupings, were confident that a renewed July 2004 offensive would bring the “resistance” similar victories.