The Iraq War That Might Have Been

Ten years on, newly published secret documents shed new light on potential turning points the United States missed.

Chris Hondros/Getty Images
Chris Hondros/Getty Images

In October 2003, a team of Pentagon intelligence analysts identified a promising twist in a war that seemed to be going terribly wrong: Sunni tribal leaders in Iraq’s hostile Anbar province had come forward with offers to help secure western Iraq.

"Leaders of these tribes — many of whom still occupy key positions of local authority — appear to be increasingly willing to cooperate with the Coalition in order restore or maintain their influence in post-Saddam Iraq," noted the memo, which was approved by Ronald L. Burgess, Jr., the major general who served as the director for intelligence on the Joint Staff and would later rise to run the Defense Intelligence Agency.

The classified memorandum was duly forwarded to American civilian and military officials in Baghdad. But the suggestion largely fell on deaf ears. It would take three more years before Sunni tribes would help turn the war around in the "Anbar Awakening."

In our years of research on the Iraq war, we have uncovered a number of similarly hidden forks in the road — lost opportunities that might have dramatically shortened the Americans’ ordeal in Iraq or decisions whose full significance was not apparent until years later. Many are chronicled in internal government documents, thousands of pages that we reviewed in the course of our reporting — in effect, amounting to a secret Iraq archive that sheds new light on the nearly nine-year-long war.

These memoranda, 23 of which are being published today in the new ebook edition of Endgame, our history of the conflict, cover the whole long arc of the war.

The documents, many of which are being published for the first time, include the dawning awareness that the United States had stumbled into an intervention that would be more taxing and prolonged than it had anticipated — a point driven home in a blunt 2004 cable from John Negroponte, the first American ambassador in post-Saddam Baghdad, warning President George W. Bush that the United States was "in a deep hole with the Iraqi people" and needed at least five years to get the country on its feet. (Bush’s response: "We don’t have that much time.")

And they cover the full range of adversaries as threats appeared to multiply. A briefing for Paul Wolfowitz, then deputy defense secretary, outlined three options for carrying out "Operation Stuart," a 2004 contingency plan to capture Muqtada al-Sadr, the fiery anti-American cleric. The operation was never executed as the Americans pondered the risks. ("Accidentally killing Sadr during an arrest attempt would make him an anti-American nationalist icon and Islamist martyr" was one of the potential "unintended consequences," the briefing noted.)

The United States, the documents show, gained critical insight into al Qaeda in Iraq after U.S. troops stopped a vehicle near Taji on Dec. 19, 2006. The hard drive and thumb drive that were found contained al Qaeda reports, which became known as the Taji DOCEX (for "document exploitation"). The al Qaeda material helped shaped the U.S. military understanding of how al Qaeda operated in Baghdad and the surrounding rural "belts."

Another adversary that was chronicled in the reports was the Jaysh al-Mahdi, Sadr’s Shia militia, which infiltrated the Interior, Health, and Transportation ministries, colonizing the very instruments of the state.

Through a combination of political appointments and thuggish militia tactics, the Mahdi Army, also known as JAM, had infiltrated the Baghdad International Airport (BIAP), the nation’s main gateway to the world, even securing positions as sky marshals. "By controlling BIAP, JAM has the ability to smuggle weapons, money, and people under the protection of official cover," noted a June 2007intelligence assessment. The infiltration had occurred under the nose of the American military’s largest headquarters at Camp Victory. The airport was eventually purged of Sadrist influence in a classified operation dubbed Silver Sabre.

Iran’s activities also figures heavily in the classified annals of the war. One set of classified reports chronicles the messages that Qasim Suleimani, the commander of Iran’s Quds Force, sent through Iraqi intermediaries to Gen. David Petraeus, the top American commander in Baghdad.

Suleimani’s message was that that he, not Iranian President Mahmoud Admadinejad, was the "sole decision-maker on Iranian activities in Iraq," Petraeus told the Pentagon. And Suleimani had an offer for the Americans: The Shiite militiant groups Iran was supporting in Iraq would reduce their attacks if the Americans would release Qais Khazali, a Shiite militant leader who was linked to a botched kidnapping that led to the death of American troops. Petraeus turned the offer down.

Here is how the documents illuminate four pivotal episodes that might have turned out differently — along with, perhaps, the war itself.


It was the synergistic effort of Bush’s surge and the Anbar Awakening that helped turned around the military situation in Iraq after the war appeared lost. An alliance of Sunni tribes and American forces had emerged near Ramadi, the provincial capital, after an Army brigade pushed into the insurgent held-area in 2006. But the infusion of forces Bush sent to Iraq in 2007 served as a catalyst that transformed a local phenomenon into a broader movement that spread to Diyala Province, contested areas south of Baghdad, and ultimately the Iraqi capital itself.

Still, as Burgess’s memo noted, there was a tantalizing opportunity to work with Sunni tribes years earlier. His Oct. 3, 2003, memo bore the anodyne title: "Sunni Outreach to the Governing Council and Coalition Provisional Authority."

Sunni tribal leaders, the memo noted, had been alarmed by the upheaval in Iraq. The extensive de-Baathification L. Paul Bremer’s Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) was promoting threatened to marginalize their once-influential tribes. The ascendency of Shia politicians in the Iraqi Governing Council (GC) in Baghdad was also a major worry.

For all that, however, the tribal leaders were offering to cooperate. At a time when suicide bombers were streaming to Iraq to wage war against the Americans, leaders of the Albu Nimr tribe wanted to help secure Iraq’s border with Syria and Jordan. Even in Fallujah, a hotbed of insurgent attacks, there were tribal leaders who were reaching out to the Americans.

"Sunnis in Al-Anbar have proposed plans to increase local security and facilitate economic growth by employing former soldiers to patrol the Iraqi border," the memo noted. "While Sunni leaders aim to improve the quality of life for their constituencies, they also hope these initiatives will increase their influence in post-Saddam Iraq."

Ignoring the Sunni’s offers carried considerable risks. "If they perceive failure in engaging the Coalition or the GC they may take order actions to include creating alternate governing and security institutions, working with anti-Coalition forces, or engaging in criminal activity to ensure the prosperity and security of their tribes."

The memo was ignored. And when Col. Carol Stewart, the head of the intelligence plans section at Central Command, tried to advance a similar plan to have tribal leaders police their own areas — her plan to establish the Anbar Rangers would have cost less than $3 million for the first half 2004 — she got nowhere. Bremer’s team made clear that it did not plan to make the tribes a formal part of Iraq’s security structure.


By October 2006, the United States was paying a price for a counterproductive military strategy and poor oversight by the White House. And Lt. Col. Nycki Brooks and a team of intelligence experts in Baghdad began to reassess the problem.

Brooks’s analysis was outlined in a secret Oct. 22 paper that was aptly titled: "The Perfect Storm." Far from ameliorating the situation, the current strategy appeared to be making things worse. After U.S. forces cleared out an area of the capital, Iraqi police were being brought in to control the neighborhood so that American forces moved on to their next objectives. But Iraq’s Interior Ministry and police were so heavily infiltrated by Shiite militia that the strategy was merely abetting the sectarian bloodletting.

"The majority Shi’a government has effectively hobbled the quest for peace within Baghdad," noted the paper, which also stressed the importance of controlling the belts surrounding the city.

"Since those who control Baghdad control Iraq it is imperative that Baghdad be stabilized. If the course is not diverted soon, then a large-scale ethno-sectarian conflict (civil war) is assured. This will require a fundamental shift in the way Coalition Forces attack this problem set. The overall numbers of forces within Baghdad will have to be increased with the mission changed to one of Peace Enforcement Operations," the paper said.

Back in Washington, President Bush was belatedly coming to similar conclusions. By December of that year, the question was no longer whether to send additional combat brigades, but how many. With the American military overstretched, the decision boiled down to whether to send two brigades or the five that were the most that might be made available.

The appointment of Robert M. Gates as defense secretary was intended to pave the way for the new strategy. But when Gates went to Baghdad in December 2006, his classified memoranda show, he did not return as a staunch advocate of a surge. Instead, Gates endorsed the cautious approach of General George W. Casey Jr., the top American commander in Iraq, and John Abizaid, the head of Central Command, which oversaw operations in the Middle East.

"Our commanders do not want more additional force than these approximately 10,000," a set of classified talking points for Gates’s meeting with Bush read. "It would be difficult to resource a more aggressive U.S. approach due to the stresses and strains on the force that you well know, and without forcing it on an Iraqi government clearly reluctant to see a large increase in the footprint of the U.S. Forces in Iraq. Forcing it on a balky Iraqi government would undermine much of what we have accomplished over the past two years," continued the talking points, which were dated Dec. 22, 2006.

Gates’s memoranda give scant attention to the Mahdi Army’s infiltration of Iraqi’s ministries and security services or the role that the Baghdad belts played as a launching point for attacks in the capital. Nor did the new secretary of defense appear confident his approach would work, noting that he was already beginning to think about developing a "Plan B."

History does not record many instances in which a president overruled his defense secretary by ordering more forces for a more audacious mission. Ignoring the cautious advice from Gates, Bush endorsed the more ambitious approach favored by Gen. David Petraeus, who was soon to replace General Casey as the commander, and Lt. Gen. Ray Odierno, the new corps commander. The president sent five brigades, providing the generals with the resources to establish control of the Baghdad belts and address the security challenges outlined in the "Perfect Storm."


While the American-led coalition forces struggled to pacify Baghdad and Anbar Province, Prime Minister Maliki had his own sense of the security challenges and they centered on Basra, Iraq’s second-largest city. With little consultation with the Americans, Maliki decided to accelerate a long-planned operation to bring order to the city and on March 24, 2008, flew to Basra to oversee it.

With a largely Shia population of 2.6 million, Basra and the nearby port of Umm Qasr was the hub for 70 percent of Iraq’s oil reserves and the Iraqi gateway to the Persian Gulf. When the British withdrew their forces in 2007, the Mahdi Army and other Shiite militias gained ground. Maliki was seen increasingly as a weak leader and rumors of a coup to oust him even began to circulate. Moreover, Maliki was aware that if he did not assert control over the southern Iraqi city, his political party would be the loser in the upcoming provincial elections, which were to be held no later than October 2008, further weakening his position.

The Americans had other priorities. General Petraeus favored a more methodical operation in Basra the following summer after an offensive that the Americans wanted to carry out with the Iraqis against the foothold al Qaeda in Iraq had established in Mosul.

A classified April 2008 paper by the Defense Intelligence Agency chronicled the battle and its implications for the Maliki government. The stakes were high: It was the first time Iraqi forces took the initiative to mound a major offensive in a distant region.

The operation had its setbacks. "Iraqi units ran short of ammunition, water, food, fuel and medical support within the first few days of the fighting," the DIA report noted. "Maliki’s presence in Basrah and direct involvement impeded the efficient operation of the military chain of command. Subordinate commanders and field officers were hesitant in executing tactical commands and reporting negative information to senior officers."

But allied air support and advisors helped the Iraqi military turn the tide. One important, but unintended, factor was the Mahdi Army’s misreading of Petraeus’s decision to send advisers to shore up the Iraqis. According to the DIA report, it believed wrongly that "up to 4,000 U.S. combat troops had reached Basra, and that both U.S. and British troops were involved in attacks on them."

Concluding that the militia it was backing was overmatched, Iran intervened to encourage a cease-fire so that the Mahdi Army might leave to fight another day. "DIA assesses Tehran sought to halt intra-Shia violence among its various Iraqi allies to prevent JAM from losing its retaliatory capabilities against CF and preserve Shia unity through the upcoming Iraqi provincial elections," the report noted, using the acronyms for Jayah al-Mahdi and Coalition Forces.

What the Americans feared might be a disaster in the making turned out to be an astute political move. Maliki had dealt Sadr and the Mahdi army a setback, laid the ground for his party’s campaign in the provincial elections in the south, and enhanced his image as a strong and canny leader. Though he underestimated the military risks, he had apparently assumed that the United States would not let him fail.

With considerable American help, he would later follow up the operation by consolidating control of Sadr City, the Mahdi Army’s stronghold in Baghdad. "The outcome of the Basra operation was mixed," noted the DIA. "Popular perceptions may be more important than reality in judging the success of the operation."


When President Barack Obama took office, he was faced with the challenge of shrinking the American military commitment to Iraq while encouraging the evolution of a stable Iraq. The task was complicated by the March 2010 parliamentary elections. The Iraqiya coalition led by Ayad Allawi, Maliki’s principal rival, had won the most seats in the voting. But with the help of a convenient ruling from the Iraqi judiciary, Maliki was moving to assemble the biggest coalition and had no intention of vacating the premiership.

The solution favored by Vice President Joseph Biden, who had the lead on Iraqi policy for the administration, was to get all of the Iraqis players into the tent. There were two approaches. One was to persuade Jalal Talabani, Iraq’s president, to resign, so that Allawi would take his place. Despite a phone call from President Obama himself, Talabani demurred.

The other was to rework the structure of the Iraqi government and establish a new power-sharing arrangement. It would be like a reverse game of musical chairs: Since they were more claimants for the top posts than positions, the United States would add another chair. Christopher Hill, the Obama administration’s first ambassador in Baghdad, was a strong advocate of this approach, which he thought might be loosely modeled after the legislation the United States had adopted in 1947 that created the National Security Council, the Defense Department, and the CIA.

The plan was outlined in an American "non-paper," a diplomatic initiative that bore no official markings so it could be disowned if he leaked. A "Coordinating Council on National Strategic Policy" would be established to review national security issues. The panel would be headed by a secretary-general for national security affairs, a post that it was assumed would go to Allawi, and would also include the prime minister, the president, the parliamentary speaker, and other ranking officials.

But like the Obama administration’s plan to replace Talabani, the scheme came to naught. Maliki and Allawi could never agree on the powers of the new body. And with the White House’s focus on withdrawing troops, the American plan faded from view, leaving Iraqi politics as fractured as ever.

By 2013, the moderate Sunni who served as finance minister had left the Maliki government and the prime minister was as powerful as before.

Meanwhile, the civil war raging next door in Syria was creating new challenges as Iran began to fly military supplies to Damascus through Iraqi airspace. Fearful of what a Sunni-dominated Syria might mean for Iraq, Maliki was apprehensive about the possibility of Bashar al-Assad’s overthrow, while Sunnis and Kurds in Iraq sided with the Syrian opposition.

The Iraq war was officially over. But a new phase in the struggle for power in the region had begun.

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