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Iraq Report: Pursuing al Qaeda and the Shia terror cells

Yesterday, Multinational Forces Iraq announced the start of two major operations: Phantom Strike and Lightning Hammer. Operation Phantom Strike "consists of simultaneous operations throughout Iraq focused on pursuing remaining AQI terrorists and Iranian-supported extremist elements," while Operation Lightning Hammer is directed at al Qaeda in Iraq and allied insurgent groups that escaped Baqubah and are organizing north of the city in the Diyala River Valley. These operations are the continuation of The Baghdad Security Plans and Phantom Thunder, the operations in Baghdad and the Belts which established a security presence in areas Iraqi and Coalition forces were absent throughout 2006.

In a response to Lightning Hammer, al Qaeda in Iraq is attempting to disrupt Iraqi and US forces™ supply lines. A suicide bomber detonated a fuel tanker on the Thiraa Dijla Bridge in Taji. At least 10 civilians were killed and six wounded in the attack, with an unknown number of people missing in the water. The bridge, which was heavily damaged in the attack, spans a canal and serves as a vital link from Taji to Diyala province, as well as from Baghdad to Mosul. US and Iraqi forces have staged from Taji into Diyala.

While the full scope of Lightning Hammer -- which consists of elements of two Iraqi divisions, four US infantry brigades, and a US combat air brigade -- has yet to be determined, the operations against al Qaeda and the Shia terror cells has picked up the pace over the past week.

Attacking the Iranian-backed Shia terror cells

The announcement for Operation Phantom Strike was clear that the Iranian-backed elements of the Mahdi Army as well as the Qods Force created Special Groups terror cells were major targets. Since the announcement of Phantom Strike, Iraqi and US troops have hit these Iranian-backed groups especially hard in Baghdad and Najaf, the two strongholds of Muqtada al Sadr and his Mahdi Army.

Coalition forces killed four "rogue Jaysh-al-Mahdi" (Mahdi Army) operatives and captured eight more during a raid inside Sadr City. Multinational Forces Iraq is explicitly clear that killing the Mahdi fighters is as good as capturing them. "The purpose of the raid was to capture or kill an extremist militant and his operatives," the press release stated. The cell has attacked both Coalition forces and Iraqi civilians. "These militants are also known to have ties to illicit materials smuggled from Iran that have been used in extra-judicial killings." No Coalition forces were killed or wounded during the attack, despite taking small-arms fire and being on the receiving end of two IEDs.

On August 13, Iraqi Special Operations Forces captured 12 Mahdi Army operatives during "synchronized intelligence driven operations" in Baghdad. Iraqi troops captured a brigade commander, battalion commander, two company commanders, and one leader of an extrajudicial killing cell, along with seven other Mahdi operatives. "The brigade commander is responsible for five groups under his control," Multinational Forces Iraq stated. "Reports indicate that he transports IEDs from Iran into Iraq and recently ordered an IED attack that caused the death of two US Soldiers. The suspect also reportedly ordered his JAM members to set up illegal checkpoints to hunt down and assassinate Sunni citizens." Also on August 13, Coalition forces captured "a key financier of Special Groups terrorists" during a raid in the Bayaa district in western Baghdad,

On August 12, the Iraqi Army and Iraqi Special Operations Forces conducted a series of raids in Najaf and Baghdad. The Najaf raid, led by the 8th Iraqi Army Division and US Special Forces, resulted in the capture of a "a high-value rogue Jaysh al-Mahdi special groups facilitator." The facilitator "operates the Amin Allah Cultural and Humanitarian Establishment in An Najaf and allegedly funnels humanitarian funds through the establishment in order to coordinate rogue JAM activities," and uses the money "for recruiting foreign fighters, training rogue JAM operatives in lethal attack tactics and trafficking illegal weapons from Iran." He has organized over 200 Mahdi fighters and is believed to be behind the assassination of government officials, including the Kufa police chief in 2004. The raid in Baghdad resulted in the capture of a Mahdi Army platoon leader and five cell members.

Attacking al Qaeda in Iraq

As the Shia terror cells are targeted, Coalition and Iraqi security forces maintain the pressure on al Qaeda's network throughout Iraq. Seventeen al Qaeda operatives were captured during raids in Tikrit and Mosul on August 12 and 13. An al Qaeda in Iraq medical doctor, who also provided logistical support to the terrorists, was captured in Baghdad on August 12. Iraqi and US soldiers rescued six hostages and captured five al Qaeda operatives during a raid on an "al Qaeda prison" in Mosul on August 13. Sixteen more al Qaeda operatives were captured during raids in Baqubah, Taji, western Baghdad, and Balad on August 14.

The aggressive operations since January have resulted in an explosion in the prison population. There are currently 42,000 detainees in Iraqi and Multinational Forces Iraq custody. Of those detained, 2,760 are foreign fighters as of August 8. This number includes over 800 Iranians.

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