Counterinsurgency in al Qaeda's last bastion in Baghdad
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
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
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
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
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.
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.
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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