Baghdad at the Crossroads
Middle East Quarterly
There is a serious need to examine the essential strategic components of Washington's initial war planning, as well as the subsequent occupation and surge, in order to shed light on the final outcome and current situation in Iraq and to plan for the future. Regardless of the messaging, the overall operation—and in particular, the surge—was a major failure in significantly altering the Iraqi equation for the better, and it laid the foundations for much worse things to come.
What began as a U.S.-led mission to end the perceived danger of Iraqi president Saddam Hussein and his weapons of mass destruction ended quietly on December 15, 2011, at Baghdad International Airport, with the lowering of the American flag. A decade-long debate about the purpose and utility of the mission has still not concluded.
Policy Debates on IraqAlthough the Iraq war began on March 19, 2003, the debate over its advisability and rationale started well before that date. Supporters of the war were led by President George W. Bush and others within his administration who argued that in light of the terror attacks on U.S. soil on September 11, 2001, Saddam's presumed possession of weapons of mass destruction and perceived connections to al-Qaeda were too great a danger to the homeland to be ignored. As the United Nations' sanctions regime was seen to be flimsy, if not crumbling, the fear that Baghdad would ally itself with terrorists took on increasing urgency.
Congressional leaders, whether convinced of the need for war or merely remembering the political repercussions of having opposed the 1991 Kuwait war, came out relatively strongly in authorizing an October 2002 war resolution.
The war's opponents ranged from leftist peace activists to those who doubted its necessity and the claims that Saddam was a grave threat. Critics pointed out that Iraq had been substantially weakened by the previous war and the destruction of thousands of proscribed weapons and questioned the existence of WMD. Many disputed Saddam's connection with Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda, pointing to deep ideological differences between the two leaders. Others argued that containment and deterrence were better means of dealing with Iraq.
Although no caches of WMD were found, and Saddam proved much weaker than war supporters had claimed, there were, at least during the initial period, reasonable concerns about these issues. But whether a long-term occupation was necessary after Saddam's removal and capture is an entirely different argument, which merits serious discussion.
On May 1, 2003, President Bush made a highly publicized (and subsequently criticized) speech on the USS Abraham Lincoln, stating that while major combat operations were over, the "mission continues ... We do not know the day of final victory, but we have seen the turning of the tide." A new and vigorous debate followed, centering on the occupation and governance of Iraq. The Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA), led by L. Paul Bremer, III, issued orders that led to the firing of hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians and security personnel although many of them had been promised safety and the chance to keep their jobs if they did not resist U.S. forces. While some of Saddam's loyalists and others would certainly have continued fighting, most government personnel appeared completely willing to work with the occupying forces and participate in a post-Saddam regime since most Iraqis detested the dictator. This disappointment, if not a broken promise, should be seen as a major cause of the subsequent massive insurgency against coalition forces as the former ruling Sunni minority sought to safeguard its fledgling position vis-à-vis the traditionally downtrodden Shiite majority.
On May 1, 2003, President George W. Bush made a highly publicized (and subsequently criticized) landing on the USS Abraham Lincoln, declaring the end to major combat operations in Iraq. The "turning of the tide" he hailed lasted another eight years, accompanied by more than 4,000 American deaths, a much-debated troop surge, and an Iraq that today seems more firmly in the orbit of Washington's Iranian nemesis.
Many proponents of a continued U.S. presence expanded on the noble ends of establishing freedom and democracy in Iraq with an inclusive government representing all the key ethnic, religious, and tribal groups. They believed that a democracy firmly planted in the heart of the Arab world would become an ally of the West in the perceived fight against Islamist extremism, whether emanating from Iran or non-state actors such as al-Qaeda. They advocated patience during the transition and acknowledged that the new Iraq was an imperfect political system and that its leaders were bound to make mistakes. Many downplayed the serious and longstanding sectarian divisions that bedeviled Iraq and argued that a Shiite-dominated government would be acceptable and would not align itself with Iran.
Opponents of the occupation focused on the ensuing casualties among both Americans and Iraqis and contended that a continued international presence greatly exacerbated the situation. They pointed out that the occupation had too few troops to stabilize the country and root out the growing number of insurgents, especially after the CPA order that disbanded Saddam's military, security, and intelligence infrastructure. Opponents further declared that Washington should have been prepared to do a lot more in the beginning of the operation, which would have allowed a quicker exit, especially after the 2005 Iraqi elections. Policy actions could have included deploying hundreds of thousands of additional troops to maintain stability and secure the borders; making greater efforts to prevent sectarian reprisals and looting; having and implementing a much more efficient transition plan that would have handed over political power sooner; providing the Iraqi security forces with more heavy armor, equipment, and combat aircraft; and making a comprehensive and substantial effort to help Iraq recover from more than a decade of sanctions, especially in terms of getting its oil and utilities industries back on their feet as quickly as possible to pre-sanctions levels. These criticisms became even more pronounced after 2006 with the rapid deterioration of the Iraqi security situation.
Initial ErrorsDespite dramatic videos of missiles blasting windows and powerful stories from embedded reporters, one key question about the fighting was rarely raised: How effective was the U.S. military strategy in destroying the bulk of enemy forces? If Washington's military strategy was to achieve a quick and easy victory, then it achieved that goal. But from the outset, the campaign failed to destroy the bulk of the enemy's fighting forces. Relying on the maximum number of estimated enemy kills and captures from a number of military and other sources (in particular those of Gen. Tommy Franks who led the 2003 invasion), U.S. and coalition forces eliminated no more than 30,000 enemy personnel of the one to one and a half million armed Iraqis comprising the regular army, Republican Guards, and other forces. If these figures are accurate, the coalition troops removed no more than 3 percent of enemy forces.
Moreover, U.S. enemies the world over learned two key lessons from the 1991 Kuwait war: 1) Do not mass forces out in the open against technologically superior air and missile forces, and 2) do not remain in any known government or military facilities when the bombs and missiles start coming down. But the 2003 U.S. military strategists ignored these lessons that others had learned well. U.S. ground forces should have been prepared to deal with an enemy that would not endanger the bulk of its forces, intending to survive the initial onslaught in order to fight again another day and in an unconventional manner. Although aware of this, Washington planners used a line of attack and, later, occupation policy that incorporated high-tech, long-distance strikes along with avoidance and low-risk actions on the ground in order to ensure minimal U.S. casualties and the resulting domestic political opposition. Despite the rapid overthrow of the Baathist regime, difficulties soon multiplied.
It appears that Washington's policy was more of a political-geographical strategy than a truly military one. That strategy primarily was to go from point A (Kuwait) to point B (Baghdad) and destroy any enemy forces along the two generally straight lines that coalition forces took. (Some smaller forces came from different directions as well.) The only problem with this approach was that the vast majority of enemy units were either not positioned along these two straight lines or had the opportunity to move out of the way before most of the coalition forces arrived. There does not seem to have been any inclination to pursue and destroy the bulk of enemy forces beyond the designated path or once U.S. forces reached the Iraqi capital. In all, it was politically convenient to declare victory after the capture of Baghdad rather than recognize that most of the enemy was still on the loose and, possibly, could reorganize in the future to fight an unconventional war of attrition. Many U.S. and coalition forces remained outside Iraq waiting to be ordered in but were told to stand down.
Understanding the original 2003 Iraq war strategy is critical to comprehending the occupation, surge, and final results. Political leaders were far more concerned about low casualty counts than achieving a decisive military victory. From a public relations perspective, the war was a success: Saddam was gone; U.S. troops were in Baghdad, and Iraqis praised Allah and Bush. However, the fundamental, underlying problem then—as it remains now—was that U.S. leaders substituted short-term political goals for military success and were able to persuade the general public into accepting this as victory. Today's very precarious and unstable situation is largely a corollary of this failed initial strategy.
Failure of the Counterinsurgency PolicyA further great debate on Washington's role in Iraq centered on the troop surge of 2007. President Bush and the surge's architect, Gen. David Petraeus, declared the surge's strategy and tactics to be sound and the eventual results a great success. Even former war critics kept silent or welcomed a policy intended to end the occupation once and for all, emphasizing its lower-risk approach of winning hearts and minds with a much larger military force to back it up. Ultimately, however, the surge offered nothing dramatic in terms of resolving deep domestic Iraqi differences or eliminating most, if not all, of the insurgents. It essentially continued the policy adopted in 2003 of avoidance and scare tactics intended to suppress enemy forces but not to pursue most of them directly for fear of high casualties and a resulting domestic backlash. Nor did it persuade most insurgents that their lives and goals were in danger if they did not negotiate with Washington. While the surge did succeed in persuading many fighters to go underground, and even some to work with U.S. representatives on some issues, it never dealt with the fundamental issues of political divisions and grievances and, thus, never resolved some of the most pressing issues. Though many of the co-opted fighters were Sunnis, who were showered with praise and material rewards for switching sides or laying down their weapons, the Shiite government never trusted them completely, and their primary demands were never met.
By 2006, the situation in Iraq had deteriorated to such a point that 30,000 more U.S. soldiers were deployed to prevent further collapse. A total of approximately 160,000 troops were to be sent to Iraq as part of a declared "New Way Forward." Originally announced to last twelve months, the surge was similar to the prewar strategy in that it was not based on traditional warfare goals geared to the destruction of the enemy.
Though January 10, 2007—the date President Bush announced his plan to send in an additional 20,000-plus troops—is generally considered the onset of the surge strategy, the policy actually began unofficially in December 2006 when the army's new counterinsurgency manual was released, in which Petraeus and others laid out the details for the upcoming surge. Underlying the new approach was the idea that throwing large numbers of troops into an area would somehow produce victory. Perhaps this can work in a conventional war (albeit in a messy and costly fashion) but not in an unconventional war like the Iraqi one.
Good counterinsurgency strategy requires flexibility and movement, intelligence, and aggressiveness. The plan adopted in 2007 never included any of these elements in a comprehensive and regular manner. It also appears to have operated on the assumption that the enemy was so dim-witted and collectively suicidal that it would not make any adjustments to its own strategy once forewarned of U.S. specifics. As such, the surge strategy was a military failure even before it began, its only success being in the U.S. domestic and media spheres. Petraeus's strategy basically took the extra 30,000 troops, broke them up into small units, and deployed them into fixed positions throughout a few select areas of Iraq, primarily in and around Baghdad. By spreading out and diffusing its military superiority with a constantly moving enemy that mixed in with the local population, failure was guaranteed in the long term. Although the surge enabled U.S. troops to get out to more locations and interact with the Iraqi people, the temporary lull in fighting in those locations did not mean victory. Instead, the enemy merely had enough sense to go underground and relocate to new areas.
The vast majority of insurgents never surrendered or left Iraq and definitely were not removed. Some were killed or captured; others agreed to surrender under promises of a peaceful resolution to their grievances. A number of fighters, such as the Awakening councils and Sons of Iraq from Anbar province, were even paid and armed to stop attacking U.S. forces and to carry out basic, local security duties. These groups took the money and the jobs, but many were not completely reliable and, in the end, were fired by the Shiite-led central government or forced to join with the regular armed forces under Shiite command.
Having produced very little success in Baghdad in terms of the number of insurgents eliminated, the public relations focus shifted elsewhere: to Anbar province. Massive internecine strife continued in Baghdad, and thousands of terrorists remained safe and untouched in Sadr City and adjacent neighborhoods—notably the Duri and Shammar tribal areas north of the capital. But Anbar was out in the middle of nowhere, had a relatively small population (about one quarter of Baghdad's), and was mainly an entry and transit point to other more important areas. It is not surprising then that Anbar and the surge's "success" became intertwined. However, on a national level and over the long term, success there meant relatively little. U.S. policymakers encouraged local tribes and other groups to secure their areas and fight al-Qaeda and any other enemy. These forces did have some success, but since Anbar was far from the primary centers of political power, the impact was relatively small.
The surge strategy produced, beyond a doubt, a reduction in U.S. casualties and enemy attacks. It came, however, at the expense of allowing the enemy to remain relatively safe and grow stronger by the day. Based upon a number of reports, despite the surge, there were an estimated 100,000-plus Sunni insurgents (many of them former Iraqi security personnel that had been disbanded), some 60,000-plus Shiite members in Muqtada al-Sadr's Shiite Mahdi Army, another 60,000-plus members in the Iranian-supported Badr organization, approximately 10,000-20,000 total hardcore terrorists within the organizations listed above laying the bombs and committing suicide attacks, and some 1,000-5,000 al-Qaeda members. Most combat organizations have on average a ratio of two-to-one combat to support personnel. In the case of the insurgency, this would embrace people who provide weapons, safe houses, money, transportation, reconnaissance, etc. Consequently, many more people could be added to the list of supporters and sympathizers. The group most focused on in Iraq for years was al-Qaeda, which appears to have made up no more than 1 percent of this insurgency total. From a public relations perspective, targeting those who perpetrated 9/11 might have made some sense, but when 99 percent of the insurgents appeared to be anything but al-Qaeda, the approach must be seen as ineffective from a military standpoint.
Notwithstanding the vast U.S. superiority over the enemy and the hundreds of billions of dollars spent, most of the estimated terrorists were not killed or captured, let alone tried and convicted during the surge period. Based upon the reported number of enemy killed by the U.S. government through daily media sources such as The New York Times, there were no more than 500 terrorists reported killed in the first year and a half of the surge. When one considers that government and military sources claimed that an average of 50 to 100 foreign insurgents were entering Iraq per month at the same time (supposedly a 50 percent reduction from previous periods, though such estimates usually only counted foreign entry from Syria), the surge's enemy kills did nothing to reduce total numbers.
In the meantime, tens of thousands of suspected terrorists were put in Iraqi jails. However, very few were ever tried and convicted, and most of them were released after six to twelve months. One U.S. Department of Defense report, "Measuring Stability and Security in Iraq," acknowledged that very few detainees actually turned out to be terrorists and that in the 18,000-plus cases reviewed between February 2007 and January 2008, more than 13,000 detainees were released without trial, 2,000 were found not guilty in court, and more than 3,000 were waiting to have their cases heard. In other words, no convictions could be declared for an entire year of the surge. In an apparent gesture of cooperation, U.S. officials referred approximately 3,000 of their own detainee cases to Iraqi courts, but every detainee was found innocent. These results are consistent with a number of reports over the years that stated that no more than 2 percent of Iraqi detainees were ever tried and convicted. Washington continues to refuse to disclose the exact number of terrorist convictions, but inferring from the above data, it is likely that the conviction rate is in the single digits and is, most likely, no more than 1-2 percent. When the Iraqi government started applying its own February 2008 amnesty law, more than 100,000 detainees were ordered released by courts by July 2008.
All in all, the surge strategy can lay claim to a grand total of approximately 1,000 actual terrorists killed or captured in the first year and a half of its operation, or approximately 56 terrorists per month. Compared to the simultaneous estimated 50 to 100 foreign terrorists entering Iraq each month, the surge's failure becomes apparent. This assessment does not even include domestic recruitment or the number of Iraqis enraged by the arrests of their family members without substantial evidence. Instead the surge was an unexpected opportunity for insurgents to reorganize, rest, and prepare for the endgame for control of Iraq, making them its most likely beneficiaries.
An Ignominious End?One of the major (and unintended) consequences of the surge was driving powerful Shiite cleric Muqtada Sadr ever closer to Tehran. Rather than the Shiites turning on each as they did in the 1920s, conflicts with Sadr's Mahdi Army and Sadr's subsequent flight to Iran ended up aligning him with Tehran and, in effect, his main Shiite rival, the Iraqi Badr organization. As such, the surge united many of the Iraqi Shiites under the banner of Sadr and, to a lesser extent, Iran, in what may turn out to be one of the most decisive factors in the future of Iraq and the ultimate failure of U.S. policy.
Thus, by the time the surge started to wind down in 2008, the pro-Iranian Shiites were being armed and trained on a large scale by Tehran. This arming had been going on to a lesser extent since 2003, but the Shiites' experience, confidence, and capabilities increased greatly during the surge, especially when the administration declared that it would withdraw most if not all combat forces from Iraq in the near future. This lack of commitment encouraged both Shiite and Sunni forces to substantially increase their weapons' acquisitions, recruitment, and training in preparation for the forthcoming power vacuum.
Obama's promise to leave Iraq by 2011 helped strengthen Sadr and his pro-Iranian forces while Sunni groups' fears became more pronounced. It should be pointed out that the Shiites were never completely united, and there certainly was fighting between Maliki government forces and Sadr's and other Shiite militias. But this was more like a family squabble and never led to any large numbers of deaths or long-term imprisonments. In 2008 in Basra, for example, the Iraqi government sent 30,000 troops to suppress Sadr's group, but Tehran then stepped in and resolved the issue before any substantial losses were incurred.
In any event, in the 2010 elections, a number of U.S. officials including James Clapper, director of national intelligence, and Gen. John Mattis, head of U.S. Central Command, strongly supported the election of Ayad Allawi—Maliki's chief Sunni rival and a former CIA confederate. These officials argued that many regional Arab allies opposed Maliki and thought he was too pro-Iranian. Other officials, including Vice-president Joe Biden, sided energetically with Maliki while President Obama played both sides of the fence and kept his options open. It is not surprising that when all the votes were counted, Maliki may have believed that some U.S. officials had betrayed him and tried to subvert the process in Allawi's favor.
Fiery Shiite cleric Muqtada Sadr, seen here in a poster with one of his Mahdi army militiamen, has become a kingmaker in Baghdad thanks in part to the inept U.S. role in Iraq's most recent elections. Sadr was once declared an outlaw by U.S. occupation administrator Paul Bremer but has managed to outlast and outflank most of his opponents.
Thus, a governing coalition was formed that was more unfriendly to Washington's interests and had within its key leadership a former U.S. foe in Sadr. Maliki soon shifted after the new government was created to a more pro-Iranian and staunch Shiite position, alienating Washington even further. This helps explain why Baghdad was unwilling to accept Washington's status-of-forces conditions for maintaining a military presence after 2011 as well as its permission for Tehran to use Iraqi airspace in support of the embattled Syrian government.
In December 2011, the Maliki government targeted its Sunni vice president Tariq Hashemi, charging him with planning terrorist attacks against Shiites. Convicted and sentenced to death in absentia, Hashemi fled to Iraqi Kurdistan and then to Turkey. Many Iraqi Sunnis perceived the charges as trumped up by hostile Shiites and an attempt to weaken and humiliate rival Sunni politicians. The heightened tensions between the two Muslim communities further underscore the failure of the U.S. mission in Iraq.
ConclusionCould the Iraq equation have been changed to produce a more favorable outcome for Washington, and was it worth all the effort?
The current situation in the country bodes poorly for the United States. A more hostile and skeptical Iraqi government is in place, which presumably will not strongly support U.S. interests in the region. Baghdad is unlikely to allow U.S. military forces to return if needed for a possible attack against Iran and is now more supportive of Tehran and Iranian interests in the region. Moreover, the Iraqi government has been trying to compel American oil companies to give up their operations in Iraqi Kurdistan and appears to be looking for replacements in China and elsewhere for the American companies.
This state of affairs is the culmination of nearly a decade of Washington's failures and lost opportunities. Though the claimed objectives and results were commendable, the actual conduct of the war and its consequences were sub-par. These mistakes began before the outbreak of hostilities with a minimalist military strategy, followed by the self-restrained operations during the occupation and surge phases, and finally by the embarrassingly inept political behavior before and after the 2010 Iraqi elections. These missteps were all indicative of a major disconnect between U.S. leaders' once very powerful and aggressive military doctrine and a new breed of timid and inexperienced leaders forwarding incoherent policies.
Iraq's future trajectory seems to be toward a rising Iran that may one day fully incorporate Baghdad into its orbit. Washington has had more than enough chances to stem this current and future course, but the general passivity and eventual desperation of U.S. leaders turned the Iraqi mission into a tragedy that has yet to end conclusively and comprehensively.
Steve Dobransky is an adjunct professor at Cleveland State University and Lakeland College. Contact: email@example.com.
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 Kenneth Katzman, "Iraq: Reconciliation and Benchmarks," U.S. Department of Defense, Washington, D.C., June 5, 2008, p. 6.
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 The U.S. Army/Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manuel: U.S. Army Field Manual, No. 3-24/Marine Corps War Fighting Publication, No. 3-33.5, United States Department of Army, Washington, D.C.
 Katzman, "Iraq: Reconciliation and Benchmarks," pp. 5-6; "Measuring Stability and Security in Iraq, Mar. 2008," U.S. Department of Defense, Washington, D.C., pp. 17-28; Bush, Decision Points, pp. 376-88.
 Reuters, Sept. 19, 2008.
 Katzman, "Iraq: Reconciliation and Benchmarks," pp. 5-6; Bush, Decision Points, pp. 383-5; Gordon and Trainor, The Endgame, pp. 240-63.
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 John J. McGrath, Boots on the Ground: Troop Density in Contingency Operations (Fort Leavenworth: Combat Studies Institute Press, 2006), pp. 1-212.
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 Kurt Nimmo, "More than 13,000 Being Held by Coalition in Iraqi Prisons; Less than 2% Have Been Convicted," Nov. 15, 2005, www.prisonplanet.com.
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 Lebanon Wire (Beirut), June 25, 2012; "Iraq Benchmark Report Card: One Year after the Surge," Center for American Progress, Washington, D.C., Jan. 24, 2008; Katzman, "Iraq: Reconciliation and Benchmarks," pp. 4-6; Gordon and Trainor, The Endgame, pp. 312-28.
 Gordon and Trainor, The Endgame, pp. 638-50.
 The New York Times, Mar. 26, Dec. 21, 2010.
 "Iraq: Al-Sadr's Long-Term Plans," Stratfor.com, June 25, 2012; "Iran's Interests in Rising Iraqi Oil Production," idem, May 28, 2012; The New York Times, Sept. 4, 2012.
 Associated Press, Oct. 15, 2011, Aug. 31, 2012.
 Gordon and Trainor, The Endgame, pp. 679-81; The Cleveland Plain Dealer, Dec. 16, 18, 2011.