The Battle of the Sunni Triangle
"First we're going to cut it off, and then we're going to kill it."
General Colin Powell, Gulf War I
The battle to retake the untamed region of Iraq commonly known as the Sunni Triangle has been underway for several months. While there has been reporting of the discrete assaults on individual cities and towns, I have yet to read a comprehensive report on the scope of the conflict. This post is an attempt to piece together the individual accounts and draw a picture of the ongoing battle that is leading up to the showdown in Fallujah. There is little doubt that this post is missing vital pieces of information and the picture painted is incomplete, however I feel this is a rough representation of the overall battle. I am not in possession of classified information or in contact with intelligence or military personnel. The information used was gathered from open news sources.
The Battle of the Sunni Triangle began, in all places, outside of the Sunni Triangle in Shiite holy city of Najaf on August 16. Najaf sits directly south of Baghdad along the vital supply route from the South (Najaf is not pictured in the map below due to editing reasons, but it lies directly south of al-Hillah). Cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, with the assistance of Iran, was inciting a rebellion in a bid to gain control of the Shiite power structure. Fighting ended on August 27, after American and Iraqi forces surround the Imam Ali shrine and killed thousands of his Mahdi Army. Sadr turned over the keys to the mosque to Ayatollah Sistani, his soldiers agreed to disarm and Iraq forces occupied the city. This was a major victory as the Imam Ali shrine was left intact, the southern supply route was secured and the potentially serious Shia uprising was prevented.
In late September and early October, the town of Tal Afar (Sept 24) was retaken, followed by operations near Hillah in the Babil Province (Oct 1). The operations near Hillah were likely conducted in the towns of Yusufiyah, Mahmudiyah, and Latifiyah as they reside in the Babil Province. These towns sit astride of the supply route from Najaf to Baghdad and are a major source of the insurgent attacks on the military supply columns.
Tackling the Triangle
The actions in Najaf, Tal Afar and the Babil Province frees up resources and secures the supply routes from the north and south to conduct the upcoming assault on the Sunni Triangle. The Sunni Triangle is a central region in Iraq that supplied the power base of Saddam's Baath party. The area is mainly comprised of Sunni Muslims, which make up about twenty percent of the Iraqi population, and is outlined by Tikrit in the north, Ramadi in the southwest and Baghdad in the southeast.
Tikrit has been successfully occupied by American troops for some time. Samarra (Oct 1), which is just south of Tikrit, was retaken by a joint American-Iraqi force of about 5,000 soldiers. In Baghdad, Sadr City (Oct 5) followed shortly afterward, with fierce clashes between followers of Sadr. A week later the Iraqi government negotiated a truce with the insurgents to turn in weapons and end the fighting. The town of Hit (Oct 11) was struck by coalition airstrikes and a mosque that was being used as a base of operations by insurgents was destroyed. Baqubah /a> (Oct 13), north of Baghdad, was attacked by a joint American-Iraqi force of about 1,000 soldiers. Fighting is ongoing in Ramadi (Oct 13) by Marines in a weeklong series of raids.
(see this map for a complete view of Iraq)
The current bulk of the fighting appears to be confined to an axis of Hit-Ramadi-Fallujah, with mop up operations ongoing in Samarra and Sadr City. The obvious endgame is the retaking of Fallujah, and the entire operation appears to be geared towards this. Supply lines to Fallujah are being cut from the north, south, east, and west where Marines are operating in the towns of al-Qaim and Husaybah. Fallujah itself is in the process of being surrounded, with checkpoints and roadblocks being set up by American and Iraq forces, constant airstrikes on Zarqawi's infrastructure, and on & off negotiations with the city's leadership and members of the Iraqi insurgents not related to Zarqawi's terrorists. The insurgent alliances appear to be strained, and members of Zarqawi's organization are found face down with lead poisoning. The Iraqi government demands that Zarqawi be handed over to spare an all out assault, and residents are said to be fleeing the city.
There is little doubt America possesses the operational capability to conquer the Sunni Triangle. American forces were very close to taking Fallujah in April 2004 until it was decided to work an agreement to have the ill-fated Fallujah Brigade patrol the city. Maintaining control and establishing the conditions for elections in January is the greater challenge. This will depend on several factors, including the willingness of the local Iraqi populations to reject the insurgency and the ability of the new Iraqi Army and police forces to maintain unit cohesion and occupy the cities and towns as needed.
The Sunni Triangle was bypassed during Operation Iraqi Freedom as the Fourth Infantry Division was unable to deploy in Turkey and fight their way south. This was to be their area of operations. It has been nineteen month since the start of OIF, and the taking of the Sunni Triangle is long overdue.