By DJ Elliott, CJ Radin and Bill Roggio
The Baghdad Security Plan and the greater Iraq security operation is now over four weeks into its execution. Over the past month, Baghdad has seen the sectarian murders decrease significantly. Al Qaeda in Iraq, however, is attempting to destabilize the government and force an early U.S. withdrawal. Al Qaeda in Iraq has stepped up its suicide and car bomb attacks against government targets and the Shia population in an effort to reignite the sectarian violence, which has drawn Iraq to the precipice of civil war during the past year.
The Shia pilgrimage to Karbala has been a major target for al Qaeda this past week. Over 2.5 million pilgrims traveled to Karbala to mark the end of the Shia holy month (some estimates put the number as high as 9 million). Al Qaeda conduct several suicide attacks against the Shia, resulting in the deaths of over 150 pilgrims. The Iraqi government responded by increasing security along the routes, deploying elements of 1st Iraqi National Police Mechanized Brigade and the and 9th Mechanized Army Division. U.S. Units also were called in to provide security south of Baghdad.
Inside Baghdad, Iraqi and Coalition forces continue to expand their presence in the neighborhoods. There are now 23 Joint Security Stations (JSS) established throughout the city. The JSS are the patrol bases where U.S. soldiers, Iraqi police and Army units operate from within the neighborhoods in Baghdad. While about 35 to 40 JSS were planned for Baghdad initially, the concept has yielded positive results and more stations will be opened. The Iraqi government and Coalition are now planning on opening over 70 Joint Security Stations throughout Baghdad. The Sadr City JSS will be operational shortly. A joint U.S. and Iraqi force of 1,150 soldiers and police established 23 checkpoints in Sadr City last week and conducted clearing operations inside Muqtada al Sadr’s stronghold.
Currently two of the five U.S. brigades and seven of the nine Iraqi army battalions scheduled for deployment are now in Baghdad. There may be three additional Iraqi battalions in Baghdad due to the rotation of forces (the Iraqis rotate battalions every 90 days). The final two Iraqi battalions are at the Besmaya training center south of Baghdad. The Iraqi Army is training 7,500 new soldiers a month and is filling out the undermanned Iraqi battalions inside Baghdad. The Rashid district in southwest Baghdad has been split into two sectors, with Bayaa to the west and Doura to the east. The 4th Brigade of the 1st Infantry Division (U.S.) has begun to move into this region of Baghdad.
The U.S. will increase the troop commitment by an additional 4,600 soldiers. About 2,200 Military Police (MPs) will be deployed, along with 2,400 combat support troops. “The MPs will arrive in Iraq over the next few months and will be assigned to duties at detention centers, to provide route security for convoys and to mentor Iraqi police,” notes American Forces Press Service. “Additionally, the Republic of Georgia has volunteered to send an additional combat brigade [about 2,000 soldiers]… and Australia will contribute 70 seasoned military trainers.” The full compliment of of U.S. forces will not be in Iraq until early June, General David Petraeus, the commander of Multinational Forces Iraq noted in his first briefing from Baghdad last week.
Despite the increased security presence inside Baghdad, al Qaeda suicide and car bomb attacks inside the city will remain a challenge, both General Petraeus and Major General Bill Caldwell noted during last week’s briefings. Al Qaeda in Iraq has demonstrated the ability to generate major suicide and car bomb attacks on a near regular basis. This ensures the violence remains on the front pages of the newspapers and discredits the U.S. and Iraqi government efforts. The terrorists were able to conduct 4 mass casualty attacks inside Baghdad over the past week: a car bomb was detonated at a book market (20 killed, 42 wounded); a suicide car bombing at a police checkpoint in southern Baghdad (12 police and 10 civilians killed); another suicide attack at a police checkpoint (10 killed, 43 wounded); and a suicide car bomb attack on Shia pilgrims returning from Karbala (32 killed, 42 wounded).
Outside of Baghdad there were two major attacks last week. In Balad Ruz, a suicide bomber killed 30 civilians and wounded another 25 after blowing up a cafe. In Mosul, several hundred al Qaeda fighters led by Abu Omar al Baghdadi, the leader of al Qaeda’s political front organization the Islamic State of Iraq, launched a strike against a prison. The Kurdish guards were overwhelmed by over 300 al Qaeda, and called U.S. forces in Mosul for support. The prison housed several hundred high value al Qaeda targets, and al Qaeda was able to free 140 of them. All but 47 of the prisoners have been recaptured, according to Iraqi police. Abu Maysarah al Iraqi, the head of al Qaeda in Iraq’s media wing was one of those released, according to Quds Press and is still free. Abu Talha, the leader of al Qaeda in Mosul up until his capture in 2005 was also freed, but subsequently recaptured.
Abu Omar al Baghdadi has been a prominent name in the news the past week. Despite numerous reports that Abu Omar al-Bagdadi, the leader of al Qaeda’s political front organization the Islamic State of Iraq, was arrested yet again this week, he remains on the loose. Baghdadi was reported captured by the Iraqi Interior Ministry three separate times – once in Duluiya in Salahadin province, once in Baghdad, and once in Abu Ghraib. The March 5th raid in Duluiya is said to have netted Abdullah Latif al-Jaburi – aka Abu Abdullah – the second in command of the Islamic State of Iraq. Announcements by Iraqi officials on the capture of death of senior al Qaeda and insurgent leaders should be taken with a healthy does of skepticism after the past week’s performance.
Since the Baghdad Security plan has taken effect, the evidence is clear al Qaeda in Iraq has largely withdrawn from the capital and is operating from Diyala province. Al Qaeda in Iraq is using Diyala to indoctrinate, arm and sortie suicide and car bombers into Baghdad and the surrounding areas. One American military intelligence official described this to me as “launching human artillery” from the province. Several thousand al Qaeda in Iraq fighters are believed operating from Diyala.
General Petraeus has said Diyala will be a focus of the troop buildup. Major General Caldwell noted that Multinational Force Iraq is “seeing the same trends as previous Baghdad security plans,” with violence migrating out to the provinces as Baghdad becomes more secure. But the operational commanders have built in flexibility into the planning, and as we noted last week, the additional U.S. combat brigades may in fact be deployed to the provinces. “There are two complete U.S. combat brigades in Baghdad, while the lead elements of the 3rd brigade is in Kuwait,” said Major General Caldwell. “We are situation dependent on where the 3rd, 4th and 5th brigades will go.”
Al Qaeda’s activities in Diyala are stirring up local resistance to the terror group. Al Sabaah reports Local sheikhs in Diyala are organizing against al Qaeda and its Islamic State of Iraq, “which [is] spreading corruption in the province districts.” The Iraqi government beginning to plan military operations in Diyala as well. The Diyala sheikhs are beginning to organize, and are said to be forming a anti al Qaeda group akin to the Anbar Salvation Front, a grouping of former insurgents and tribes that oppose and fight al Qaeda’s presence in western Iraq.
As a sign al Qaeda is concerned about this development, the terror campaign against hostile tribes is now underway. The homes of Sunni and Shia tribesmen who oppose al Qaeda are being burned to the ground on the city of Muqdadiya. Unconfirmed reports indicate 30 to 100 homes have been torched in the city. Two days ago, a police station in Hibhib in Diyala province was overrun. One policeman was killed, 3 wounded and 10 have been reported missing.
Securing Baghdad over a period of time while reducing the violence in the provinces, particularly Anbar and Diyala, will be a challenging task for General Petraeus and his Iraqi partners over the next several months. The first month has seen a significant improvement in the security situation in Baghdad. Iraqi and Coalition forces must maintain the initiative in both the capital and provinces, push reconciliation and reconstruction.
The enemy also has a say in whether the security plan will succeed or fail. They will probe for weaknesses, and attack. The suicide and car bombs are one such weakness that is being exploited. Muqtada al Sadr and his Mahdi Army have been silent since the start of the security operation, but this can change. U.S and Iraqi forces must be flexible, and quickly react to as yet unseen surprises.
This week’s Bgahdad Order of Battle was originally published at The Weekly Standard.