Maine National Guard Deployments: Fighting Precursors to ISIS in Iraq, 2004

There may be no stronger ties to international issues than the military service of friends and family. The deployment of local National Guard units, being as connected to state and local communities as they are, offer particularly clear examples of how Maine is linked to global issues. This is the first of what I hope to be a series of articles drawing connections between these deployments to the news we hear today.

I grew up right next to the armory in Norway, Maine. The fenced-in military vehicles and the monthly swell of cars in the parking lot were familiar sights. So it was odd when suddenly the military vehicles would disappear and the cars stop coming. As a kid I had little idea why this happened, but eventually I learned that the soldiers were deploying.

The first time I noticed the vehicles behind my backyard vanish was when the 133rd Engineer Battalion deployed to Iraq in 2004. The Norway armory was the home of Detachment 1, Company C of the Battalion, and they joined the rest of their unit traveling first to Fort Drum, New York, then Kuwait, and finally Iraq.

The 133rd arrived one year into the war. The insurgency had already begun to morph from remnants of Ba’athist groups loyal to Saddam Hussein to terror groups like Al Qaeda in Iraq, fed by a widening population dissatisfied with the foreign occupation, a trend that would worsen in the months following the 133rd’s arrival. The country was in the midst of a handover from the coalition forces to the new Iraqi government, and it was not going very well. Law and order had broken down in large swaths of the country and many Iraqis saw the U.S. and coalition forces as failing to deliver on their promises. If anyone was going to be able to counter that sentiment, it was the 133rd.

The 133rd Engineer Battalion did many things, but the crux of their job description was this: they built stuff. A history of the Battalion’s time in Iraq reads like what every U.S. general and politician had in mind when they were talking about winning “hearts and minds”. They built schools. They built medical clinics. They built roads. They installed generators. They did security for polling stations. They trained Iraqi security forces. All the while, they were building and upgrading a variety of things for the U.S. military, doing everything from repairing the Mosul airfield to adding armor to vehicles to make them more resistant to IEDs.

The 133rd was not operating in a peaceful part of Iraq either. In addition to the local insurgency fighting coalition forces in the area, the region encompassed one of the main routes for foreign fighters coming in from Syria. The soldiers often came under fire from rockets, mortars, and small arms and dealt with the threat of IEDs while in convoys. One of the bases the 133rd shared was also the target of a major suicide bombing in December 2004 that caused 22 deaths, including 2 from the 133rd, and 72 injuries. The attack was claimed by the Ansar al-Sunnah Army, an insurgent group that would eventually merge with ISIS.

North and Central Iraq. The 133rd's missions were focused primarily in the Nineveh (Ninawa) and Irbil (Arbil) provinces. Source

North and Central Iraq. The 133rd’s missions were focused primarily in the Nineveh (Ninawa) and Irbil (Arbil) provinces. Source.

It is stunning how familiar the names in reports of the 133rd’s deployment are to any current news reader. They were deployed to the Northwestern region of Iraq—roughly a third of which is now controlled by ISIS. The places they worked in, the people they worked with, and the people they fought have consistently been in the news over the last year and a half.

The Battalion’s area of operations included a sizable amount of Kurdish territory, including Irbil, the capital of the autonomous Iraqi Kurdistan region. The Kurds are now well-known for being at the forefront of the fight against ISIS, and, until recently, were one of the few groups to consistently recapture territory from them. The Kurds are an ethnic group that was particularly persecuted under Saddam Hussein’s regime, so they were one of the groups with the clearest support for the U.S. invasion in 2003. Iraqi Kurdistan was therefore one of the friendliest areas for U.S. troops to operate in during the war, something the 133rd took notice of. The friendly locals and lack of enemy activity made a base in Kurdistan one of the favorite sites for troops from the unit (it only ever took one rocket attack while the 133rd was there). The Battalion also began a training program for the Peshmerga, the Kurdish military forces.

Red = Kurdish inhabited areas. CIA map from 1992. Link. Original source.

Red = Kurdish inhabited areas. CIA map from 1992. Link. Original source.

The U.S.’s military actions against ISIS in fact began in the 133rd’s former area of operations. Attempting to escape ISIS massacres in August 2014, thousands of Yazidis, a religious group, fled to Mount Sinjar. When it seemed they may be overrun by ISIS, the U.S. began airstrikes in the area to allow the Yazidis to escape, which most did. This occurred on August 9th, the second day of airstrikes, while the first day of airstrikes, August 8th, were actually against ISIS positions besieging Irbil. In December 2014, again with U.S. air support, the Peshmerga finally retook Mount Sinjar. Slightly over ten years earlier, the 133rd had built a retransmission station on the mountain.

But the name from the 133rd’s deployment history that has cropped up the most in recent news is the city of Mosul. Many of the Battalion’s missions were performed in and around the city. The U.S. military had a major base complex there that was the focus of many of the Battalion’s engineer missions. They also helped with poll security and the reopening of the local airport there, among other things. Mosul regained international notoriety on June 10th, 2014, when ISIS defeated Iraqi security forces and took control of the city. This heralded the group’s rise as a major force in Iraq, and it is now their de facto capital in the country.

However, although the ISIS takeover represented a new level of insurgent control, it was not the first time that insurgents had taken and held territory in the city.  In November 2004, Iraqi police forces in the city collapsed under an assault by Al Qaeda in Iraq, Ansar al-Sunnah, and some Saddam loyalists, leaving the city in insurgent control. Over the following two weeks, the U.S. military retook the city with the help of Peshmerga, but Al Qaeda and Ansar al-Sunnah remained entrenched in certain neighborhoods. Mosul would continue to be violently contested for years, including after the withdrawal of most U.S. forces in 2011. Now Iraqi and Kurdish forces are gearing up for a major fight to retake the 133rd’s old stomping grounds from ISIS, with the 101st Airborne Division training and assisting. The recapture of Ramadi at the end of December shows promising signs of a turning tide, but Mosul will likely pose a bigger challenge to capture and hold.

Shows control by ISIS black, Kurds yellow, and the Iraqi government red.  Cropped to focus on Iraq. Source: Wikipedia.,_Iraqi,_and_Lebanese_insurgencies.png

Territory controlled by ISIS (black), Kurds (yellow), and the Iraqi government (red) as of January 1st, 2016. Cropped to focus on Iraq. Source: Wikipedia.

The relentless bad news, particularly over the past year and a half, from where the 133rd was deployed represents the immense challenges the unit was up against in 2004: a well-equipped and well-manned insurgency fed by a deeply divided society. The 133rd had not deployed as a unit to a war zone before, with their foreign experience primarily consisting of civil assistance missions in Latin America. But despite their violent surroundings, the Battalion completed hundreds of missions during their year there. The unit ultimately received a meritorious unit commendation for their service in Iraq, demonstrating, in the Army’s words, an “unrivaled performance of duty.”

It was quite a surprise to learn that this was what Detachment 1, Company C went to do when they left my neighborhood in 2004. Now, almost every other day, I read a headline from the part of the world they were fixing up. Hearing their story has served as a clear reminder that even the biggest news can be tied to what’s happening in your backyard.


Information on the 133rd Engineer Battalion’s deployment to Iraq was generously provided by 1st Lieutenant Jonathan Bratten, the Maine National Guard Command Historian and former historian of the 133rd. The list of the unit’s accomplishments during their deployment was far too long to fully recount here, so if you are interested in learning more, you can contact the Maine National Guard’s Public Affairs Office at 207-430-5759 or

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Phoenix McLaughlin

About Phoenix McLaughlin

Phoenix McLaughlin works at the National Endowment for Democracy helping to foster political development in Asia. Phoenix lives in Washington, D.C. now, but was born and raised in Norway, Maine. In between, he has studied and/or worked in Colorado, Nepal, India, France, Ethiopia, and Augusta. All opinions expressed on this blog are solely his own and do not represent his current or former employers.