Baghdad and the Belts. Red bordered units identified as active in offensive operations. Click map to view.
By Bill Roggio and DJ Elliott
A look at the largest offensive operation in Iraq since 2003
Four days after the announcement of major offensive combat operations against al Qaeda in Iraq and its allies, the picture becomes clearer on the size and scope of the operation. In today’s press briefing, Rear Admiral Mark noted that the ongoing operation is a corps directed and coordinated offensive operation. This is the largest offensive operation since the first phase of Operation Iraqi Freedom ended in the spring of 2003.
The corps level operation is being conducted in three zones in the Baghdad Belts — Diyala/southern Salahadin, northern Babil province, and eastern Anbar province — as well as inside Baghdad proper, where clearing operations continue in Sadr City and the Rashid district. Iraqi and Coalition forces are now moving into areas which were ignored in the past and served as safe havens for al Qaeda and Sunni insurgent groups. As the corps level operation is ongoing, Coalition and Iraqi forces are striking at the rogue Iranian backed elements of Muqtada al Sadr’s Mahdi Army and continuing the daily intelligence driven raids against al Qaeda’s network nationwide.
Multinational Division North is leading the offensive in Diyala province and southern Salahadin. The current offensive in Diyala was telegraphed when Multinational Forces Iraq announced the creation of the Diyala Operational Command on June 14, just as the announcement of the Baghdad Operational Command in January immediately preceded the onset of the Baghdad Security Plan. The Diyala Operational Command is essentially a corps command for the Iraqi Security Forces in the province which allows for the Army and National Police units to coordinate efforts throughout the region.
Operation Arrowhead Ripper, the assault on Baqubah kicked off with an air assault. Iraqi Army scouts accompanied elements of the 3rd Stryker Brigade Combat Team of the 2nd Infantry Division. The operation in Baqubah s modeled after the successful operation to clear Tal Afar in September of 2005, which was designed and executed by Col. H.R. McMaster. The plan is to essentially “seal, kill, hold and rebuild.” The city is cordoned, neighborhoods are identified as friendly or enemy territory, the neighborhoods are then segmented and forces move in with the intent to kill or capture the enemy. As both Michael Gordon and Michael Yon reported from Baqubah the goal isn’t just to clear the city of insurgents, but to trap and kill them in place. The combat operations are then immediately followed by humanitarian and reconstruction projects.
At last count, three U.S. combat brigades, two Iraqi Army Brigades and one Iraqi National Police Brigade in direct action at Baqubah The number of Iraqi brigades inside the city may be growing, however. “Iraqi Defense Ministry spokesman Mohammed al-Askari said about 5,000 Iraqi soldiers and 2,000 paramilitary police were fighting,” reported the Associated Press. “Iraqi forces said they took control of neighborhoods in Baqouba and were greeted by cheering people.” This would equate to two Iraqi Army brigades (2-5 and probably 3-5). The “paramilitary police” is probably 1st Iraqi National Police Mechanized Brigade from Taji.
One U.S. and two Iraqi Army brigades (possibly upwards of four) are in blocking positions in the area. Newer Iraqi Army units are being used as blocking forces. The police units were not built for major offensive operations of this scale, and the less seasoned Iraqi Army units are better suited to take blocking positions.
Iraqi Armored units are likely taking up blocking positions along the Tigris River to prevent al Qaeda fighters from crossing into neighboring Salahadin province. The long guns and heavy machine guns on the armor allow the Iraqi forces to protect the bridge crossings and take out barges and craft used to cross the river. A curfew has been imposed on the province of Diyala, which likely includes instructions to keep off the rivers. This strategy has been employed by Multinational Division Central, which destroyed a barge on the Tigris river near Salman Pak south of Baghdad. The craft was being used to smuggle “ammunition and bomb-making materials into Baghdad.’
The operation in Baqubah s a microcosm of the larger operation in Diyala, while Diyala is one but one of three of the corps level operations. The same goal is shared across the three theaters: cordon the regions, trap and kill al Qaeda and clear the areas, and then move in security forces in for stability and reconstruction operations.
In the south, Multinational Division Central is leading offensive operations, dubbed Operation Marne Torch, in northern Babil province. Two U.S. combat brigades and one Iraqi Army brigade are on the offensive south of Baghdad, while one U.S. Army brigade and two Iraqi National Police are in blocking positions. After four days, Operation Marne Torch has yielded 4 insurgents killed, 62 captured, ten caches and five improvised explosive devices seized and 17 boats destroyed.
In the east, Multinational Forces West is engaged “north of Fallujah” – likely in Karma and the Thar Thar region, where al Qaeda and Sunni insurgents maintain support nodes in the desert expanse of the Jazeera desert nearly equidistant to Baghdad, Fallujah and Samarra. A Marine Regimental Combat Team, a Marine Expeditionary Unit and an Iraqi Army Brigade appear to be the teeth of the offensive operations while elements of the 1st Iraqi Army Division are in blocking positions.
While the major offensive operation is occurring in the Baghdad Belts against al Qaeda and Sunni insurgent holdouts, major raids continue against Sadr’s forces and the Iranian cells in Baghdad and the south. Two major engagements occurred against Sadr’s forces since Monday — one in Amara and one in Nasariyah. Scores of Mahdi Army fighters were killed during both engagements after Iraqi Special Operations Forces, backed by Coalition support, took on Sadr’s forces.
The Iraqi government and Multinational Forces Iraq are sending a clear message to Sadr: when the fighting against al Qaeda is finished, the Iranian backed elements of the Mahdi Army are next on the list if they are not disbanded. Also, the Iraqi military and Multinational Forces Iraq possesses enough forces to take on Sadr’s militia if they attempt to interfere with current operations.
Finally, as the major operation is ongoing and Sadr’s forces are challenged, Task Force 145 (or Task Force 88, it appears) continues its war in the shadows against al Qaeda’s network nationwide. Raids against al Qaeda’s networked on June 16 and 17 resulted in 10 terrorists killed and 20 captured, while raids on June 18 and 19 resulted in one al Qaeda killed and 15 captured.
Multinational Forces Iraq and the Iraqi Security Forces have now launched operations on all fronts simultaneously against al Qaeda. The three major theaters of the belts, plus Baghdad, are seeing massive operations, and Special Forces continues to hunt al Qaeda’s operatives nationwide. Sadr and his Iranian backed Mahdi Army have been put on notice, with force to back it up. The enemy will have little space to operate, and al Qaeda’s attempts to move operations to Salahadin or the north toward Mosul will expose the network. The pressure must be maintained over a significant period of time in order to sufficiently degrade al Qaeda’s operational abilities nationwide, and provide the Iraqi government with the time and space needed to resolve the political issues.