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Executing a winning strategy in Iraq

By Kimberley Kagan

 

The surge of operations that American and Iraqi forces began on June 15 has dramatically improved security in Baghdad and throughout Iraq. US commanders and soldiers have reversed the negative trends of 2006, some of which date back to 2005. The total number of enemy attacks has fallen for four consecutive months, and has now reached levels last seen before the February 2006 Samarra Mosque bombing. IED (improvised explosive device) explosions have plummeted to late 2004 levels. Iraqi civilian casualties, which peaked at 3,000 in the month of December 2006, are now below 1,000 for the second straight month. The number of coalition soldiers killed in action has fallen for five straight months and is now at the lowest level since February 2004. These trends persisted through Ramadan, when violence had typically spiked. “I believe we have achieved some momentum,” Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, commander of coalition combat forces in Iraq, said modestly in his Nov. 1 press briefing. Since security was deteriorating dramatically in Iraq a year ago, how US commanders and soldiers and their Iraqi partners achieved this positive momentum deserves explanation, even though hard fighting continues and the war is not yet won.

“As we assess the security gains made over the past four months, I attribute the progress to three prominent dynamics,” Gen. Odierno explained. “First, the surge allowed us to eliminate extremist safe havens and sanctuaries, [and] just as importantly to maintain our gains. Second, the ongoing quantitative and qualitative improvements of the Iraqi security forces are translating to ever-increasing tactical successes. Lastly, there’s a clear rejection of al-Qaeda and other extremists by large segments of the population, this coupled with the bottom-up awakening movement by both Sunni and Shi’ite who want a chance to reconcile with the government of Iraq.” These dynamics worked together to improve security.

After US President George W. Bush decided to change strategy and increase the number of US troops in Iraq, the goal became to secure Iraq’s population from violence in order to allow civic and political progress. Generals David Petraeus and Odierno implemented the new strategy and determined how to use the additional troops.

Generals Petraeus and Odierno conducted three successive, large-scale military operations in 2007. The first was Fardh al-Qanoon, or the Baghdad Security Plan, which dispersed US and Iraqi troops throughout the capital in order to secure its inhabitants. The second was Phantom Thunder, an Iraq-wide offensive to clear al-Qaeda sanctuaries. The third was Phantom Strike, an Iraq-wide offensive to pursue al-Qaeda operatives and other enemies as they fled those sanctuaries and attempted to regroup in smaller areas throughout Iraq. These military operations have improved security throughout central Iraq.  

 

CLEARING ENEMY SANCTUARIES AND PROTECTING THE POPULATION

Competing enemy groups drove the sectarian violence in Baghdad in 2006. Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) launched spectacular attacks against civilians, particularly in Shi’ite neighbourhoods. Death squads, operating on behalf of extremist militia groups, purged mixed neighbourhoods of their Sunni residents and intimidated Shi’ites into compliance with their agenda. As a result, beleaguered Sunnis turned to al-Qaeda for protection against the death squads. Al-Qaeda set up defensive positions in some neighbourhoods, such as Dora in south-western Baghdad, to defend the Sunni population against attack. The car bomb was al-Qaeda’s offensive weapon of choice, and the IED its preferred defensive weapon. The Iraqi security forces could not remove al-Qaeda from its fortified positions, nor could they stop the spectacular attacks. Shi’ite death squads responded by increasing executions of Sunnis. By the end of 2006, al-Qaeda and militia groups were fighting for control of territory in Baghdad.

US commanders sent two of the five new brigades provided by the surge to Baghdad. As the Baghdad Security Plan began in February, US and Iraqi troops in Baghdad adopted a new posture. They cleared some neighbourhoods in order to locate their Joint Security Stations there. US and Iraqi forces lived together at these small headquarters. They sent detachments from Joint Security Stations to smaller outposts and slowly spread throughout the city. They regularly engaged with the local population. They developed relationships with residents, gained their trust, and reconnoitered or cleared enemy positions. To establish safe neighbourhoods and markets, they placed concrete barriers around positions vulnerable to car bomb attacks. The combination of more US troops and the new mission of protecting the population drove down the number of execution-style killings in the capital.

Commanders positioned the other three additional brigades in Baghdad’s “belts”, the networks of roadways, rivers, and other lines of communication within a 30-mile radius of the capital. Al-Qaeda’s sustained campaign of vehicle bombing relied on an extensive support system outside the city to supply stolen and stripped vehicles, factories for converting them into vehicle bombs, explosives, money, and suicide bombers (most of them foreign). Al-Qaeda’s strongholds and sanctuaries were in Salman Pak, Arab Jabour, Fallujah, Abu Ghraib, Karma, Tarmiya and Baquba. In early 2006, al-Qaeda also moved fighters along the Euphrates River valley between Anbar Province and North Babil. US and Iraqi security forces were especially sparse in these rural areas.

The enemies of the Coalition and the Iraqi Government were able to use the terrain around Baghdad to funnel forces and supplies into the capital, to circumnavigate the city by highway and to move from the city into the provinces.

Generals Petraeus and Odierno designed Operation Phantom Thunder to clear al-Qaeda from its sanctuaries in the belts around Baghdad. Phantom Thunder consisted of multiple, simultaneous military operations around Baghdad designed to prevent the enemy from fleeing from one safe haven to another with impunity. Securing the capital from al-Qaeda also required the dismantling of a car bombing network based in Karkh and Rusafa, neighbourhoods in central Baghdad on both sides of the Tigris.

The Phantom Thunder offensive began on June 15, as soon as all the new brigades had arrived and were ready. Northeast of Baghdad, almost 10,000 US and Iraqi forces surrounded Baquba and blocked the escape routes from the city along the Diyala River valley on June 18. US forces south of Baghdad conducted clearing operations from north to south along the Tigris River valley, focusing first on the al-Qaeda sanctuary in Arab Jabour on June 15. A large concentration of US troops cleared the al-Qaeda stronghold in the Baghdad neighbourhood of Dora at the end of June and first weeks of July. Marines, meanwhile, were clearing Fallujah and Karma. Enemy attacks and US casualties spiked during the first week of these major clearing operations, but both fell as US forces drove the enemy from these sanctuaries.

Gen. Joseph Fil, the Baghdad Division Commander, explained in late June how the operations inside and outside Baghdad worked, and why the fighting briefly intensified:

“As we have gone through the city and concentrated in a lot of areas where [the enemy] had free rein sometime before, those areas are now denied to them. And so their freedom of manoeuvre inside of the city, their own battle space, has been more and more restricted, and their support zones have been severely restricted, both inside the city and also in the belts around the city. And so they’re running out of manoeuvre space and they are starting to fight very hard.”

By the end of June, US and Iraqi forces had liberated western Baquba. By the end of July, they also controlled eastern Baquba, Dora and Fallujah - the major urban strongholds of AQI. By mid-August, they had also cleared other al-Qaeda and Shi’ite extremist strongholds south of Baghdad, including a terrorist safe haven in Musayyib, on the road from Karbala to Baghdad. The Phantom Thunder offensive killed over 1,100 enemy fighters and detained over 6,700, including 382 major figures. It drove most remaining al-Qaeda into rural areas, far from population centres. The displacement of al-Qaeda leaders and fighters made it possible to track many of them down with special forces. Phantom Thunder also fractured the belts, compartmentalising some al-Qaeda operations around the capital, so that the surviving portions of the network could not readily support one another.  

 

PHANTOM STRIKE

In order to prevent al-Qaeda and Shi’ite extremist groups from reestablishing themselves in cities or rural support areas, Generals Petraeus and Odierno launched Phantom Strike, the second Iraq-wide offensive, in the middle of August. Operation Phantom Strike, which is still going on, has consisted of quick-strike raids aimed at destroying terrorist staging areas and preventing insurgents from establishing new sanctuaries.

For example, al-Qaeda leaders from Baquba reconstituted in several areas in northern Iraq after US forces cleared Diyala’s capital. Some took refuge along the Hamrin Ridge, just north of the Diyala River valley, on a secondary road toward Kirkuk; some reconstituted in tribal areas just south of Baquba. Other al-Qaeda elements remained in strongholds along the Tigris River valley, such as Tarmiya, Balad, and Samarra, or in safe havens south of Baghdad. The headquarters of the Islamic State of Iraq remained in Mosul. None of these al-Qaeda groups fared well during Phantom Strike. As the offensive began, US and Iraqi forces struck alternately at enemy groups in Diyala and in the provinces to the north, Ninevah, Salah a-Din and Tamim.

Operations in Diyala aimed to keep Baquba secure by clearing and holding territory in its vicinity. US and Iraqi forces cleared 50 villages in the Diyala River valley during the middle of August, many of which al-Qaeda had occupied as recently as April. This large operation prevented al-Qaeda from re-infiltrating into Diyala from the Hamrin Ridge. US forces cleared the city of Muqdadiya, at the junction of the Diyala and Hamrin Lake, in a follow-on operation in mid-October.

Meanwhile, US forces in August increased the tempo of attacks on al-Qaeda in Balad and Samarra. These cities were important to al-Qaeda’s ability to project force into Anbar. Al-Qaeda launched its failed June expedition to recapture Ramadi from this area.

In Tarmiya, just south of Balad, along the Tigris, US special forces killed and captured numerous high value targets during Phantom Thunder, culminating with the emir of the northern belts on Aug. 7. As Phantom Strike began, special forces operating in Tarmiya killed or captured several major al-Qaeda figures, including Ali Latif Ibrahim Hamad al-Falahi, aka Abu Ibrahim, responsible for overseeing terrorist operations in the northern belts and “coordinating VBIED [vehicle-borne improvised explosive device] attacks in Baghdad”; Abu Yaqub al-Masri, an inner circle al-Qaeda leader with close ties to AQI leader Abu Ayyub al-Masri; and Muayyad Ali Hussein Suleiman al-Bayyati, aka Abu Wathiq, who helped establish AQI in Tarmiya.

In early September, when the operations south of Lake Hamrin concluded, US and Iraqi forces attacked al-Qaeda safe havens at the northwestern end of the Hamrin Ridge, known as the Zaab triangle. Al-Qaeda’s leadership used the rural villages along the Zaab River to plan and synchronise attacks. Meanwhile, US and Iraqi special forces, as well as Iraqi conventional forces, conducted raids against key locations and individuals in Kirkuk and Mosul, cities where al-Qaeda typically operated.

As US operations closed the gaps in the belt from Karma to Baquba and struck along al-Qaeda’s north-south routes, they drove members of the network into more constrained spaces, such as Tikrit, Saddam Hussein’s hometown and a major source of Sunni insurgents since 2003. Special forces targeted insurgents in Tikrit in August, making it more difficult for the groups to reconstitute there.

Phantom Thunder and Phantom Strike did not eradicate AQI. Rather, the intensive operations in Tarmiya, Balad, Samarra, and the Zaab triangle impeded it from coordinating attacks in northern and central Iraq. Phantom Thunder and Phantom Strike not only removed the network’s established personnel, but also degraded the infrastructure that had permitted the organisation to stage regular vehicle bomb attacks from Karma and Tarmiya in March and April 2007. These operations also severed the northern belt from the southern belt.

In mid-September, the main effort shifted closer to Baghdad. Hawr Rajab is farmland in Arab Jabour, wedged between three important areas: the farmland closer to the Tigris that US forces cleared in June; the Mahmudiya-Baghdad highway; and Baghdad’s southernmost neighbourhood, Abu Disheer, which is primarily Shi’ite and sits on the underbelly of Dora. Like Arab Jabour generally, Hawr Rajab lacked American troops and Iraqi security forces prior to the summer of 2007, and was therefore an exporter of weapons to Baghdad. US forces fought to control Hawr Rajab in September and October in order to stabilise Arab Jabour and to tamp down the violence in Baghdad proper by weakening the regions that supplied weapons and fighters to al-Qaeda in Dora.

IRAQI SECURITY FORCES AND CONCERNED LOCAL CITIZENS

US forces thus moved from clearing operations in former enemy sanctuaries to the next stage, called maintenance operations, by which they controlled and retained cleared territory. Holding terrain is troop-intensive, and it requires offensive as well as defensive operations. In past years, US forces relied almost exclusively on Iraqi security forces to preserve gains after clearing operations, because of lack of troops and because of the focus on a rapid transition to Iraqis. US forces in 2007 likewise relied on their partner units in the Iraqi army and Iraqi police, and the greater number of Iraqi and American troops meant that more soldiers were available to hold terrain. The cooperation of Iraqi citizens, serving as interim and regular police, increased the ability of all forces to hold terrain.

The rejection of al-Qaeda by the Ramadi sheikhs in late 2006 has been widely reported. Gen. Petraeus transformed the tribal movement in Anbar into a national phenomenon supportive of government institutions. US commanders fostered grassroots movements throughout Iraq, methodically negotiating security agreements with local officials, tribes, and former insurgent leaders. They thus achieved one of the major objectives of the counterinsurgency strategy by reconciling much of the Sunni population with the government.

Diyala Province, which has an extremely complex network of Sunni, Shi’ite, and mixed tribes, illustrates the complementary relationship between improving security and movements of concerned citizens. As US forces reconnoitered Baquba and its vicinity, some locals who had once fought the Americans as insurgents began cooperating with US and Iraqi security forces against al-Qaeda. These leaders helped US forces clear enemy sanctuaries during the summer offensive by revealing enemy positions and weapons caches. For example, members of the 1920s Brigades - a Sunni insurgent group that operated alongside al-Qaeda until May - in Baquba identified the specific locations of rigged houses and deep-buried IEDs before the city was cleared in June. Reconciliation efforts proceeded as soon as US and Iraqi forces had cleared western Baquba, and rippled outward through the Diyala River valley as US forces eliminated the enemy there. Tribal leaders in Diyala recruited locals to guard their communities alongside US and Iraqi forces.

The summer offensive widened the scope of the population’s movement against al-Qaeda and other terrorists. Locals willing to cooperate with Americans and Iraqi security forces might jump-start clearing efforts, as in Hawr Rajab, but few locals turned against al-Qaeda before military operations cleared terrorist sanctuaries. Rather, the “concerned local citizens” movements generally spread after US and Iraqi forces, partnered together, cleared an area. For example, after removing al-Qaeda leadership in Tarmiya, US conventional forces conducted a series of large, coordinated operations there in mid-September, to remove an illegal court and clear gigantic caches of explosives. These operations set the stage for the concerned local citizens movement in Tarmiya, which had proceeded fitfully in June, July, and August because of al-Qaeda’s presence in the city. In mid-September, over 1,200 men volunteered within two days to serve as volunteers for a new provisional security group known as the Critical Infrastructure Security Contract Force to help defend Tarmiya.

As of Nov. 1, 2007, approximately 60,000 Iraqis had volunteered to protect their local communities as part of these fully screened and monitored forces.  

 

PHANTOM STRIKE AGAINST SECRET CELLS AND SHI’ITE EXTREMISTS

As the imminent threat from al-Qaeda receded, US forces waged an aggressive campaign against Iranian-backed secret cells and extreme elements of Moqtada al-Sadr’s militia, the Jaysh al-Mahdi. Coalition and Iraqi special forces captured and interrogated secret cell leaders throughout Iraq in the months from March through June, prior to the start of Phantom Thunder. In late July, US and Iraqi forces intensified their operations against secret cell leaders in Baghdad, killing or capturing cell leaders and militia members threatening western Baghdad neighbourhoods such as Shula, Mansour, Hurriya, Bayaa, and Aamel. Detainees included financiers, weapons traffickers, death squad leaders, snipers, and members of a splinter Jaysh al-Mahdi group that conducted extra-judicial killings. At this time, coalition forces also arrested a major smuggler of explosively formed penetrators (EFPs), a powerful, armour-piercing IED, east of Baghdad and secret cell leaders north of Baghdad in Diyala.

These campaigns against secret cells led rogue militia and Iranian-backed elements to retaliate. An assassination campaign in August successfully targeted officeholders affiliated with the Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council (which, along with the two other leading Shi’ite parties, Dawa and the Sadrist Trend, comprised the political bloc that originally helped Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki to power). Another assassination campaign targeted Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani’s aides in southern provinces. The disturbances became more widespread. On Aug. 28, rogue militia elements or special groups disrupted the Shi’ite pilgrimage in Karbala. These elements attempted to shoot their way past mosque guards, but failed. The Iraqi Army secured Karbala and helped evacuate the thousands of pilgrims. Prime Minister Maliki traveled to Najaf on Sept. 5 and met with the Grand Ayatollah. According to an official press release, Maliki and Sistani talked about “technocratic” government and about security in the holy cities.

The incident prompted Moqtada al-Sadr to issue a statement once again requesting that militia members loyal to him lay down their arms. US and Iraqi forces continued to target rogue elements of the militia that did not respond to Sadr’s request throughout September and October.

 

EFFECTS OF THESE OPERATIONS

Clearing al-Qaeda out of its strongholds in Dora, Ameriya and Adhamiya reduced violence in Baghdad. Former insurgents in Ameriya introduced the anti-al-Qaeda “concerned citizens movement” to Baghdad in May. In early August, residents of Adhamiya stormed the Abu Hanifa mosque, an al-Qaeda stronghold. Residents, tribal sheikhs, government officials, and US commanders developed a new Critical Infrastructure Guard Force to protect important facilities in Adhamiya. The summer offensives in Hawr Rajab reduced the supply of fighters and materiel to Dora, making it more difficult for the enemy to re-infiltrate that neighbourhood. In addition, the Phantom Strike offensive aggressively targeted the Karkh-Rusafa car bombing network, which al-Qaeda had supplied from the belts, reducing the number and lethality of vehicle bombs in Baghdad.

In northwestern Baghdad, “murders are down from a peak of over 161 reported murders per week a year ago to less than five per week now, and our continued efforts to defeat sectarian expansion continue to drive these numbers down,” reported Colonel J. B. Burton, the sector’s commander, in mid-October. “IED and small-arms attacks are down from a peak of 50 per week in June to less than five per week since the end of August. And vehicle-borne IED attacks are down nearly 85 percent thanks to our combined efforts to defeat the Karkh VBIED and IED networks.”

The elimination of important secret cell leaders in western Baghdad has reduced EFP attacks in northwestern Baghdad dramatically. According to Col. Burton: “Very rarely do we find an effective EFP within our ... former ... EFP hot spots, given the increased participation of local nationals in helping us to find these weapons, the increased responsiveness of the Iraqi security forces to defeat these cells and the increased effectiveness of our targeting operations to defeat the entire network.”

Generals Petraeus and Odierno have conducted a sophisticated counterinsurgency campaign aimed at securing the population of Iraq, and at the development of political, economic and communications infrastructure to support the overarching political objectives. In addition, they co-ordinated simultaneous and successive military operations throughout Iraq, rather than concentrating on one region. Their campaign is the largest and longest sustained offensive that America has undertaken in Iraq so far. The operations have severely disrupted al-Qaeda’s ability to project power into Baghdad by denying the group sanctuaries, fragmenting the belts, destroying support networks, and eliminating key personnel. Operations against Shi’ite militias and Iranian extremists have reduced their ability to take advantage of al-Qaeda’s demise in order to advance their sectarian agenda.

Generals Petraeus and Odierno pursued a vision of local-level reconciliation aimed at supporting the overarching political goals. They recognised that national politics and legislative agendas would not determine whether violence fell. The security facilitated by the military operations accelerated the spread of local efforts to turn against al-Qaeda. US commanders catalysed those efforts in former insurgent safe havens once they were cleared. Commanders are therefore trying to connect these local movements to the provincial and national government.

US and Iraqi troops have fought side by side in these campaigns. The Iraqi army and Iraqi police are more capably conducting long operations. Some units still need Americans at their side, and others need them at their back as they assume new responsibilities. American troops also play a critical role in persuading the Government of Iraq to accept the new military and political realities, including a Sunni community that is willing to support the government in order to participate in political decisions.

Enemy groups will attempt to regenerate. American troops play an important role in preventing the enemy from reestablishing sanctuaries. Holding territory, particularly in urban areas, requires continuous military operations based on sophisticated intelligence. The development of an economic and political capacity helps maintain the gains.

The theatre-wide offensives were meant to buy time for the Government of Iraq to develop the institutions of governance. The fragmentation of al-Qaeda in Iraq, extremist militias, and secret cells has only just happened. The opportunity to negotiate a political settlement now belongs to the Government of Iraq. It is too soon to know what the Iraqis will do. With violence falling sharply, Iraqis are no longer mobilising for full-scale civil war, as they were at the end of 2006. Whether the political developments that were always the ultimate objective of the surge can be brought to fruition remains to be seen.  

Dr. Kimberly Kagan is President of the Institute for the Study of War in Washington, D.C., and an affiliate of the John M. Olin Institute for Strategic Studies at Harvard University. She has visited Iraq repeatedly in recent years. © Copyright 2007, News Corporation, Weekly Standard, reprinted by permission, all rights reserved.

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