The Iraq Spring Fighting of 2004 (April 4, 2004 - June 24, 2004) was a series of operational offensives and various major engagements during the Iraq War. It was a turning point in the war: before, the conflict was simply US/Coalition versus insurgents, but the Spring Fighting marked the entrance of militias and religiously based (Shi'a and Sunni) militant Iraqi groups, such as the Mahdi Army into the arena of conflict.
The first was the rise of a hard-line Shiite cleric called Muqtada al-Sadr and his militia, the Mahdi Army, in the south of the country. Muqtada al-Sadr also has great influence in the Sadr City section of Baghdad (Sadr City, which was Saddam City, was renamed after the invasion, in honor of Sadr's father, Grand Ayatollah Mohammad Mohammad Sadeq al-Sadr). With the fall of Saddam Hussein, Muqtada al-Sadr emerged as a Shia leader by zealously rejecting the US-led occupation of Iraq. Al-Sadr created the Mahdi Army in June 2003.
The second cause, probably the flashpoint for the conflict, was the highly-publicized killing and mutilation of four Blackwater private military contractors on March 31, 2004. Five days before American troops withdrew from Fallujah after intense fighting on March 26, 2004 (at which point Fallujah had already been declared insurgent-occupied) killed one Marine. The troops retreated to the city's outskirts. The four independent contractors were guarding food shipments for a U.S. base on the outskirts of Fallujah, Iraq, when they took a wrong turn and entered the city. They were killed in a grenade attack by suspected insurgents, and their corpses were mutilated by cheering crowds.
On April 3, Bremer sent troops to al-Sadr’s home and arrested Mustafa Yaqoubi, a top lieutenant, sparking further protests.
On April 4, Spanish troops clashed with demonstrators in Najaf demanding Yaqubi’s release, resulting in the death of one Salvadoran soldier and at least 20 Iraqis. It is unclear which side fired first. The same day al-Sadr issued a statement calling on his supporters to stop staging demonstrations “because your enemy prefers terrorism,” reported the Toronto Globe and Mail.
“America has unsheathed its fangs and its despicable intentions, and the conscientious Iraqi people cannot remain silent at all. They must defend their rights in the ways they see fit,” the statement said, according to the Washington Post.
A day after the statement given by Sadr, violent protests occurred throughout the Shiite south, soon spilling over into a violent uprising by Mahdi Army militiamen, which was fully underway by April 6, 2004.
The militants gained partial control of Karbala after fighting there. Other coalition forces came under attack: in Nasiriyah two Italian armored vehicles were destroyed, and British forces came under fire in Amarah and Basra. Najaf and Kufa were seized by militiamen on April 6, 2004 after a few firefights with Spanish and Salvadoran troops. Kut was seized on the next day after clashes with Ukrainian troops, mainly on the Tigris River bridge. On the same day, Karbala came under full Mahdi Army control.
By April 9, 2004, exactly a year to the day after the statue of Saddam Hussein was symbolically torn down, the US-led forces lost control of all the parts of Iraq that had been gained in the year since that event.
One notable battle during the fighting in Baghdad was on April 9, 2004. An American fuel convoy came under attack near the Baghdad International Airport. In what was described as a 5-mile long ambush, the 26-vehicle serial was pummeled by gunfire, mortar rounds and RPGs, disabling many of the civilian fuel tankers and Army vehicles. A total of 12 people from the convoy were killed: 2 American soldiers, 7 American private truck drivers and 3 Iraqi truck drivers. Another five American soldiers and 3 American truck drivers were wounded. Almost the entire convoy was destroyed. The number of insurgent casualties in the ambush is unknown. One American soldier, Pfc.Keith Matthew Maupin, and an American truck driver, Thomas Hamill, were captured. Hamill managed to escape from his captors on May 2, 2004. The body of one of the drivers, Timothy Bell, was never recovered. Maupin was reported executed, with a gunshot to the head, on June 28, 2004. Remains were recovered March 20, 2008 and verified as Maupin's through DNA analysis.
After sporadic clashes, Coalition forces temporarily suppressed most militia activity in Nasiriyah, Amarah, and Basra. On April 16, Kut was retaken by US forces, and several dozen Mahdi Army members were killed in the battle. However, the area around Najaf and Kufa, as well as Karbala remained under the control of Sadr's forces. Sadr himself was believed to be in hiding in Najaf. Coalition troops put a cordon of 2,500 troops around Najaf, but reduced the number of forces to pursue negotiations with the Mahdi Army. At the beginning of May, coalition forces estimated that there were 200-500 militants still present in Karbala, 300-400 in Diwaniyah, an unknown number still left in Amarah and Basra, and 1,000-2,000 still holed up in the Najaf-Kufa region.
On April 10, the U.S. military declared a unilateral truce to allow for humanitarian supplies to enter Fallujah, and pulled troops back to the outskirts of the city. Local sheikhs and imams refused to honor the cease-fire agreement, and repeatedly sent mujahideen fighters to attack the Marines. In violation of the Geneva Convention, the city's main hospital was closed by marines, preventing its use, and a sniper was placed on top of the hospital's water tower. There were also numerous reports of the use of cluster bombs by American forces in Fallujah during this time.
The U.S. forces sought to negotiate a settlement, but promised to restart the offensive to retake the city if one was not reached. Military commanders said their goal in the siege was to capture those responsible for the numerous deaths of American and Iraqi security personnel. As the siege continued, insurgents continued to conduct hit-and-run attacks on U.S. Marine positions, despite the fact that U.S. Marines were under a unilateral ceasefire. It was also reported that the Marines wanted a cease-fire because they were not being resupplied, due to the insurgent capture of the main highway from Baghdad to Anbar.
On May 1, 2004 U.S. forces withdrew completely from the city, and control of the city was turned over to the Fallujah Brigade (which was under control of a general who had served under Saddam Hussein). The brigade soon allied itself with the insurgents and the city was effectively under insurgent control. Between 731 and 800 Iraqis were killed during the siege of the city, at least 184 of them insurgents, and at least 27 American Marines also died. Soon afterwards, many towns in Anbar province - such as Karabilah, Sada, Romania, Ubaydi, Haqlaniyah, Hit, Baghdadi, Haditha, as well as numerous smaller villages - came under insurgent control.
It is at this time during the war that kidnapping, and in some cases beheadings, emerged as another insurgent tactic. Foreign civilians bore the brunt of the kidnappings, although some U.S. military personnel were also targeted. After kidnapping the victim, the insurgents typically made some sort of demand of the government of the hostage's nation and gave a time limit for the demand to be carried out, often 72 hours. Beheading was often threatened if the government fails to heed the wishes of the hostage takers. Several individuals, including an American civilian (Nicholas Berg) and a South Korean (Kim Sun-il), among others, were beheaded during this period.
On May 8, U.S. forces launched a follow-up offensive into Karbala, launching a two-pronged attack into the city. U.S tanks also launched an incursion into Sadr City. At the same time, perhaps as a diversionary tactic, hundreds of Mahdi Army insurgents swept through Basra, firing on British patrols and seizing parts of the city. Two militants were killed and several British troops were wounded.
On May 24, after suffering heavy losses in weeks of fighting, Mahdi Army forces withdrew from the city of Karbala. This left the Najaf-Kufa region the only area still under firm Mahdi control, though it was also under sustained American assault. Several hundred Mahdi Army rebels in total were killed in clashes with American forces. Unfazed by the fighting, Muqtada al-Sadr regularly gave Friday sermons in Kufa throughout the uprising.
On May 30, American forces withdrew from the interior of the city of Samarra, and encircled it. Insurgents took full control of the city. On the same day, insurgents also took control of Latifiya and Yusifiya south of Baghdad, effectively cutting Highway One between Baghdad and Karbala, and the Americans responded by rerouting traffic onto Highway Eight to maintain contact with the south of the country.
On June 6, 2004, Muqtada al-Sadr issued an announcement directing the Mahdi Army to cease operations in Najaf and Kufa, but the fighting in the south continued until June 24, 2004. Ironically, just as the Shi'a and Sunni offensives started together on the same day, they ended on the same day. On the day that the fighting ceased in the south, a massive coordinated attack by insurgents was underway in the Sunni territories. In five cities - Ramadi, Baghdad, Mahmudiya, Baquba and Mosul - attacks were underway. In Baghdad a suicide bomber killed four Iraqi soldiers, but the attacks in Mosul were the bloodiest. Four suicide bombers killed fifty-six civilians, eight Iraqi policemen and two American soldiers. The most intense fighting was in Baquba, where, with precise and strategic attack, the insurgents attacked and took control of the main police station and city hall, and burned down the home of the police chief. American and Iraqi troops withdrew from the city, but after a few hours American bomber planes hit insurgent positions in the city at city hall, the police station and at the football stadium. After the air strikes, the American forces entered the city without resistance.
Twenty-one members of the Iraqi security forces, two American soldiers and thirteen civilians were killed during the street fighting in Baquba. The only gain by the insurgents on this day was in Ramadi, where insurgent forces managed to take control and laid siege to Marine bunker positions. The city was under insurgent control by the end of the day. Some additional fighting was also reported around Fallujah, where nine civilians were said to have been killed. During the insurgent offensive on June 24, 2004 one hundred twenty-nine Iraqis and four Americans were killed. The number of insurgent casualties is unknown.
In total, the United States estimated that around 1,342 Sunni and Shi'a fighters were killed, and approximately 430 insurgents were captured. The USA, Iraq, and other allied forces suffered 383 killed. Approximately 2,500 American soldiers were wounded during this period. The results were indecisive. Most of Al-Anbar province (including Ramadi and Fallujah) as well as some Sunni territory north and south of Baghdad, including Samarra, were effectively left under insurgent control. The United States forces managed to maintain control of Baghdad and other major cities in the Shi'a south as well as some in the north. Another uprising of the Mahdi Army occurred a month and a half later, and a bloodier battle for the city of Najaf unfolded. Also in November the Second Battle of Fallujah occurred which left ninety-five percent of the city in ruins. Four days after the end of the Spring Fighting on June 28, 2004, the Coalition Provisional Authority transferred control to a new Iraqi government. With this, the occupation was officially over, but coalition forces remained in large numbers in the country. On the day that the transfer of authority occurred, three American Marines were killed in Baghdad and one British soldier was killed in Basra.