Counterinsurgency in al Qaeda's last bastion in Baghdad


The 3-2 Cavalry patrols in Shurta. Photo by Bill Roggio. Click to view.

Camp Striker, Baghdad Province: Nine months after the announcement of the Baghdad Security Plan and the subsequent "surge" of US forces, the battle for Baghdad remains engaged. With the effort to secure Baghdad from al Qaeda in Iraq and the Mahdi Army alike, the southwestern security district of Doura has proven difficult to tame. The soldiers of the 3rd Squadron, 2nd Stryker Cavalry Regiment are currently engaged in a heated battle against al Qaeda in Iraq in a corner of Doura.

The area of operations

Bagdad-neighborhoods-map-thumb.jpg

Shurta, Asiya, and Mechanics make up much of the areas in numbers 76 and 88 on map. Click to view.

Commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Rod Coffey, the Wolfpack of the 3rd Squadron, 2nd Stryker Cavalry Regiment arrived in Baghdad in August and assumed control of the battlespace in a dangerous segment of Doura on September 7. The Wolfpack's area of operation consists of the neighborhoods of Shurta, Asiya, and Mechanics, which are nestled in the far eastern corner of the Rashid district. (Rashid was split into Bayaa and Doura for the purpose of the Baghdad Security Plan.)

The three neighborhoods are divided by long strips of open space, each several hundred meters across and run north to south. Shurta and Asiya are described as relatively safe after the Wolfpack cleared the two neighborhoods upon arrival. Residents "are supportive and provide tips," Coffey said while on patrol in the neighborhoods.

US forces believe these the Mechanics neighborhood is one of the last bastions of al Qaeda in Iraq inside Baghdad. "Al Qaeda coerces the population in Mechanics," said Coffey. The Iraqi Army and Coalition forces left the Shurta, Asiya, and Mechanics neighborhoods three months ago, and security deteriorated. US forces were moved into the Doura neighborhoods to the north to clear al Qaeda cells after the terrorist group declared Doura to be the capital of Islamic State of Iraq inside Baghdad.

Al Qaeda in Iraq was largely successful in driving out the Christians in the neighborhoods. "These are poor, isolated Sunnis, and there still some Christians here." Coffey estimates the Christian population was around 15 to 20 percent, with the rest being Sunni. Rough estimates indicate Christians now make up only five percent of the neighborhood. "We'll do a census after the security piece is in place."

Al Qaeda in eastern Doura

Cav trooper moves out. Click to view.

The enemy in the three neighborhoods is clearly identified as al Qaeda in Iraq. "They call themselves al Qaeda, they share the ideology," Coffey explained. "The locals call them al Qaeda." Al Qaeda works to intimidate the local population, purge the area of Christians, and use the region to stage attacks on Iraqi and Coalition forces.

While al Qaeda employs assault rifles, machine guns, light mortars, and RPGs, "their tactics are built around IEDs," said Coffey. Deep buried IEDs are a major threat in eastern Doura. Al Qaeda attempts to "engage and bait" by attacking with small-arms fire and hoping the soldiers will give chase into well-laid IED kill zones.

Less than two weeks after arriving in eastern Doura, the Wolfpack began clearing operations and made heavy contact with the enemy. During a series of heavy fighting from September 18-20, contact was made with several al Qaeda cells holed up in two buildings in Asiya. The Wolfpack engaged al Qaeda with Javelin and TOW anti-tank missiles and Apache attack helicopters. The first JDAM bomb was dropped inside Baghdad. Upwards of 15 al Qaeda operatives were estimated killed during the fighting.

"Al Qaeda is not used to the US employing all of its assets in Baghdad," said Coffey. The local Iraqi intelligence network said al Qaeda's leadership is disorganized and scared in Shurta.

The locals begin to organize

Engaging the residents. Click to view.

Compared to other regions south of Baghdad, where the Iraqi Police Volunteers and the Concerned Citizens have organized to fight al Qaeda, the eastern neighborhoods of Doura have no such organized security movement. The locals are "organized in an intelligence capacity but not in a security capacity," Coffey stated. "There are no sheikhs or influential tribal leaders for the men to turn to," as the tribal influences are marginalized in the bigger cities.

Coffey and his soldiers are seeking influential community leaders to organize the Sunnis and Christians to stand against al Qaeda. But in the interim, the local intelligence network is paying off dividends with IED finds and weapons caches turned in. The Iraqi sources tipped off US troops to the location of multiple IEDs during a single day's operations. "Each day we get better and better tips," Coffey said.

"The tide of anti-al Qaeda cooperation has rolled from Anbar province to the south of Baghdad and now into Baghdad itself," said Coffey. "But it will take time."

In the interim, the Iraqi Security Forces, particularly the National Police, are not welcome in the area. "This community cannot bring in the National Police," noting the deep distrust of the Shia dominated police force in the Sunni community. "They don't want anything to do with the National Police."

Currently, the 2nd Squadron of the 2nd Cavalry Regiment is in operation to the south and mans Combat Outpost Amanche. Coffey hopes to open a joint security station, which would be manned by US troops and the yet-to-be-formed local police.

On patrol in Shurta, Asiya, and Mechanics

Graffiti reads: "This church is the reason the neighborhood is dirty." Click to view.

The scars of the sectarian war ignited by the destruction of the Golden Dome of the Al Askaria mosque in Samarra in February 2006 are readily apparent in eastern Doura. Abandon homes dot the landscape. Bullet holes pock the outsides of many buildings. Garbage is everywhere, and sewage runs in some streets.

The first part of the patrol took us to Asiya, which sits between Shurta and Mechanics. The exterior of an abandoned Christian church was defaced with al Qaeda propaganda. "This church is the reason the neighborhood is dirty," said George, the battalion's interpreter, translating the scrawl on the outer wall of the church. "Death to spies," read another line of graffiti, implying the Christians were spying for the Americans. But the church still stood.

An image of Jesus hangs in an abandoned home. Click to view.

At a recently abandoned Christian home in Shurta, al Qaeda spray-painted "Allah" on the wall on the bottom floor. But a portrait of Jesus still hung on the wall upstairs, unmolested. The home was ransacked, with toys, Christmas decorations, clothes and the belonging of the family littering the residence.

While on patrol, in Asiya, soldiers spotted a man on a rooftop across the field in Mechanics signaling with a black flag. Doves were also released. These are signaling tactics used by al Qaeda, to alert their forces on the movement of US units. Coffey ordered a soldier to fire at the signaler.

Shortly afterwards, al Qaeda opened fire with AK-47s as the patrol crossed the street. The shots were poorly aimed. As we dashed for cover, no rounds impacted in the street or on nearby walls. The soldiers in the nearby home returned fire.

Soldiers shot at al Qaeda signaler. Click to view.

The patrol moved through Shurta and a section of northern Mechanics, and Coffey engaged the citizens on the status of the neighborhood and the whereabouts of al Qaeda, and planted the seeds for raising a local auxiliary police force. The young men shook their heads when asked about the identity or location of al Qaeda operatives. "They are clearly scared," said George. "They worry what happens when we leave."


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READER COMMENTS: "Counterinsurgency in al Qaeda's last bastion in Baghdad"

Posted by Fight4TheRight at September 25, 2007 7:48 PM ET:

Bill, thanks again for a riveting report! I've missed seeing it the last few days.

Also, I was wondering how Wes is doing...not sure if I just missed a couple of his reports or if he has shifted home.

One question about your report. It's been reported many times about the atrocities that Al Qaeda in Iraq had done in Anbar - which in fact turned the locals against Al Qaeda in the end - hasn't Al Qaeda done the same in Baghdad? Or have they basically "behaved" there to help ensure a "tip free" zone?

Posted by joe at September 25, 2007 7:55 PM ET:

Great article as always. Hopefully we can get some sort of community watch program going on there. Also one slight correction I think you might have meant to say " noting the deep distrust of the shia dominated police force in the sunni community."

Posted by Lisa in DC at September 25, 2007 10:07 PM ET:

Bill,
Better and better. Really glad it worked out for you to be there at this point in operations. Without you and the other embeds, we'd be starving for news.
Thanks!
Lisa

Posted by C-Low at September 26, 2007 12:30 AM ET:

I think the fact of AQ going more and more radical zealot against the gen pop like cutting off fingers of smokers, cooking accused spys then calling the family to eat, targeting Iraqi Christians which have actually not been very helpful. ect...... I think these atrocities are the result of AQ losing. When you truly believe God or Allah is behind you then all the sudden you fail you either lose faith or have to think its because you are not "pure enough".. end result more and more insane acts to show devotion rather than dealing with what is actually the problem.

We need to keep the heat on.

Posted by Neo at September 26, 2007 1:30 AM ET:

The last newspaper accounts I read about the area were from a couple months ago about how security in the area had deteriorated. Isn't the Rasheed area directly south of Al Mechanic at the very southern edge of the city. Last I heard, Rasheed had been overrun by JAM about the same time US troops pulled out of the rest of Dora. What's the latest on that area.

How much of the action in that area is primarily local criminal gangs who have signed on with Al Qaeda.

Posted by KnightHawk at September 26, 2007 3:00 AM ET:

Fight4TheRight,
Wesley is home safe you can catch up on his blogs @ wes-downrange.blogspot.com

Posted by lori B at September 26, 2007 7:23 AM ET:

Thanks Bill!!! this is the best story I have read about 3-2nd so far, exactly what I've been looking for..great detail. I know a couple others will be pleased to know this is out there. Thanks for the map as well!

Posted by TS Alfabet at September 26, 2007 7:46 AM ET:

Great stuff, Bill.

It is quite disturbing, however, to read your reference to U.S. and Iraqi troops "pulling out" of areas in Baghdad three or four months ago. Wasn't this the point of the 'surge' in forces and Gen. Petraeus' counterinsurgency plan, to clear areas and *hold* them? Your report indicates that we did the very thing in Doura --- clearing it out and then leaving it unprotected for the bad guys to re-infest--- that we were supposed to change from prior, failed tactics.

Also, I am inferring from the fact that the 3-2 did not arrive in their AO until September that they are not part of the 'surge' in troops (which I believe was completed in June) but are, instead, fresh troops rotating in for another unit that finished its tour. In other words, the 3-2 doesn't really add more troops to the theater but is simply part of the planned rotation of troops to keep force levels constant. If this is the case, however, why was the 3-2 AO left unprotected until they arrived? It does not sound from your report like they took over for an existing unit. And if that's the case *and* 3-2 is replacing a unit that has now rotated out of Iraq, I can only wonder where that, other unit came from and whether there is now a "hole" in that unit's former AO that is now unprotected.

Posted by Bill Roggio at September 26, 2007 8:06 AM ET:

Thanks everyone.

TS, The 3-2 SCR is not a surge force. I explained what happened in the article. The troops that were in this AO were pulled from the area to hit at al Qaeda in Doura to the north after AQI declared the ISI in the region. I don't think anyone here thinks that leaving the neighborhoods without a security presence was a good idea. This was obviously a mistake. Security in the area of Doura to the north is described as decent (I wasn't there and can't say for certain but trust the assessment) so obviously pulling that unit out of its rotation has not negatively impacted things.

Posted by Lorin Friesen at September 26, 2007 10:33 AM ET:

My focus of comment is always on the current success, not the ebb and flow of troop manipulation. Mistakes are not the issue but the tactics and flux of the enemy being overcome.

The surge is the best thing to come down on al Qaeda and they are being devastated. As the neighborhoods are now cleared of their used to be al Qaeda buddies, the true citizens of Iraq know who the real enemy is and that is not the US.

I am seeing the best opportunity for civilization/ politics to begin building in Iraq again without the freedom for terrorists to live and exist openly.

Iraq needs us to stay their friend without abandon. The only surety for a peaceful Iraq is to stick it out till Iran is changed.

We will be there as friends until then in our best capacity.

Posted by Jim at September 26, 2007 10:56 AM ET:

You need to meet Jim Spiri. He is near you and a true to life freelancer, from the days of El Salvador. He should be hooked up with you.

Posted by Jim at September 26, 2007 11:42 AM ET:

Good story as usual. By the way, it is CAVALRY, not CALVARY. The latter was the hill on which Christ was crucified.

Posted by TS Alfabet at September 26, 2007 11:52 AM ET:

Thanks for the response, Bill. (and Lorin?)

So to re-focus things a little, the redeployment of troops out of the AO to hit AQI in Doura was basically a calculated risk.

I'm not trying to second guess anyone and certainly not commanders in the field, just trying to correct (my own?) misimpression that we were not going to leave cleared areas without some type of ongoing security.

No question that Petraeus' strategy seems to be the right one and paying big dividends. It seems helpful for all of us to understand when we depart from that strategy, as is the case here, by withdrawing forces for another objective. This is the essence of tactics and strategy: choosing among several priorities by weighing risks and rewards. So it seems we thought pulling units out of eastern Rashid was worth the risk in order to hit AQI in Doura. So be it. Nevertheless, it does give the appearance that we do not have enough troops (U.S. or IA) to cover all our Baghdad objectives at the same time.

Any insight that anyone can shed within op sec parameters as to the ebb and flow of forces would be valuable. For instance: the addtional surge troops initially deployed to Baghdad and the Belts. The Coalition then launched out to Diyala, South of Baghdad and Southeast, if i recall correctly. Again, we had great success and AQI has retreated further from Baghdad, into the Hamrim mountains and to rural areas of Ninevah province. How are we re-deploying forces to these areas without leaving gaps in the areas we have cleared in Baghdad and the Belts?

Posted by David M at September 26, 2007 1:09 PM ET:

Trackbacked by The Thunder Run - Web Reconnaissance for 09/26/2007
A short recon of what's out there that might draw your attention, updated throughout the day...so check back often.

Posted by Neo at September 27, 2007 1:34 PM ET:

"TS, The 3-2 SCR is not a surge force. I explained what happened in the article. The troops that were in this AO were pulled from the area to hit at al Qaeda in Doura to the north after AQI declared the ISI in the region."

This helps with some confusion I have had over seemingly contradictory stories I have been seeing about the area. I have seen a number of articles about the area over the last few month. The problem is most of these articles didn't specify which part of Doura they were in, or generalized what they observed to the entire area. I had read accounts of troops being withdrawn from the Doura, but didn't realize those troops had been redeployed to the northern portion of the area.

Your specific information helps clear some of that up. Once again, I am curious about what is happening in the Shiite areas near there. I had read reports several months ago of the Mahdi army infiltrating Shiite areas near there. Maybe the Mahdi army is more of a problem in West Rasheed.

Posted by Neo at September 27, 2007 2:26 PM ET:

David M: "Any insight that anyone can shed within op sec parameters as to the ebb and flow of forces would be valuable."

We get plenty of information from the secure and hold areas, but I suspect there will be little information about operations in some areas for us curious folks until well after events. The best indicator we can get is from tracking reports of clashes and casualties. Combine that with past reports and historical information along with maps and aerial photography.

I'd like to know someday what the Marines where up to over the summer in Western Anbar. My guess from reading reports of casualties and clashes was they were establishing control over the rural areas and smaller villages. I know that there wasn't much of a US presence in the smaller villages north of the Euphrates and many of the reports corresponded with those areas. I think the Marines would rather be invisible than get all the bad PR they have endured earlier in the war. I have noticed that things seem to be dying down in that area the last few weeks. I know the area is due to receive more trained police soon and many Marines are due to rotate out. Maybe we will get some reports when security arrangements are a little more set.

It looks like the area west of the Tigris between Taji and Samarra draws a lot of attention from Al Qaeda. I suspect we have a substantial presence in that area too. Don't expect much information until well after the fact on that one either.

Posted by Marc at September 28, 2007 10:17 AM ET:

Great report, been reading this site and its predecessor for a while. A general question for everyone, anywhere I can find some information on the areas the 'surge' or new strategy is covering. I had a co-worker sit at a lunch and tell me, its only just 1 little area in bagdhad. Any help would be much appreciated.

Posted by DJ Elliott at September 28, 2007 10:42 AM ET:

Marc

Look at the maps under the OOBs in featured reports.

2-3ID and 3-3ID are part of the "surge" and they are in MND-C (Arab Jabour).

4-2ID is part of the "surge" and is in MND-N (Baqubah).

Anbar got 4000 more USMC as part of the "surge" (13MEU + 2xBns) and most of that is now being withdrawn.

Only two US Bdes went to Baghdad proper as part of the "surge". The rest went to the outer belts and the rat-lines...

Posted by Marc at September 28, 2007 12:43 PM ET:

Thanks for the input guys! Much appreciated, maybe a newer update could be done to overlay MNF and Iraqi forces, kind of a complete look at the situation today.

Posted by DJ Elliott at September 28, 2007 1:10 PM ET:

Marc

The ISF OOB map includes IA, INP, DBE and Coalition brigades and is updated monthly...

http://www.longwarjournal.org/multimedia/IraqBdeOOB2.php

http://www.longwarjournal.org/oob/index.php

Posted by Fight4TheRight at September 28, 2007 6:25 PM ET:

Knighthawk,

Thanks so much for the update on Wes - glad he's home safe and sound!