With Operation Lightning Hammer II underway in Iraq’s north, the provinces of Ninewa and Salahadin are a major focus of the latest offensive. Over half of the troops allotted to Lightning Hammer II are operating in Mosul, Tal Afar, and a region known as the Za’ab triangle in northern Salahadin province. Most of the troops conducting offensive operations in Ninewa and northern Salahadin are Iraqis.
“The Za’ab triangle is the main effort for our operations,” said Col. Stephen Twitty, the commander of the 4th Infantry Brigade, 1st Calvary Division during a Pentagon press briefing on September 7. Twitty runs the battlespace in Ninewa province, and recently assumed command of segments of northern Salahadin province in support of Lightning Hammer II. “[The Za’ab triangle] is an area that has seen very little coalition presence in previous months.” The Za’ab triangle is delineated by the Tigris River and Ninewa, Irbil, and Kirkuk provinces, and has served as an al Qaeda safe haven.
Twitty is executing Gen. David Petraeus’ counterinsurgency doctrine of clear, hold and build in the north. “As we destroy safe havens in the area, we’re setting conditions for permanent presence in the Za’ab for coalition and Iraqi security forces by establishing Iraqi police stations and checkpoints to cut off the terrorists from freedom of movement,” he said. Iraqi and US forces killed 25 terrorists and detained over 50 since the operation began on September 5.
Over 14,000 Iraqi and US forces are operating in Twitty’s battlespace. Well over half of the 26,000 troops involved in Lightning Hammer II are involved in Twitty’s battlespace. The operation in this region is Iraqi manpower intensive, as only four US battalions (about 3,000 troops) are supporting the two divisions of Iraqi troops from the 2nd and 3rd Iraqi Army Divisions. Overall, 20,000 Iraqi Army and 20,000 Iraqi Police operate in Ninewa province with support of a single US brigade. Ninewa province is set to transfer to Iraqi provincial control in October 2007.
With concurrent operations underway in neighboring Kirkuk and Diyala provinces, as well as in Baghdad and the Belts, al Qaeda’s ability to reorganize and regroup is limited. Al Qaeda in Iraq has increasingly found it difficult to pull off “spectacular” mass-casualty suicide attacks inside Baghdad and in the major cities, while the level of violence overall in Iraq has dropped. Brig. Gen. Kevin Bergner outlined the decrease in violence during an interview with Australian media on September 7:
What we have seen from that is over the last eleven weeks in eight of those we have seen a decline in the number of security incidents overall. We have seen about a 40 percent decline from June when this surge of operations began to the end of August, the most recent reporting period. So we have seen improvements just in the short-term as a result of the surge of offensive operations. And if you go back to December of 2006, when sectarian violence was partially challenging level and we have seen it come down by about 50 percent nationwide over that same period of time.
Thee concurrent, nationwide operations made possible by “the surge” of US forces are having the desired effect of taking al Qaeda off balance, removing terrorist safe havens, and setting the security conditions to tackle the difficult political issues such as the oil law, reconciliation, and ending de-Baathification. But there is plenty of work to be done against al Qaeda and the Iranian-backed Shia terror groups before the conditions are ripe for political progress. Operation Lightning Hammer II will not be the last offensive operation launched this year, as others are sure to come.