Last week, the Coalition announced that Operation Hunter (or Sayaid), designed to bolster Coalition forces in the region of Qaim on the Syrian border, was underway. Yesterday, Iraq’s Chief of Interior Ministry Commandos stated that Iraqi commandos will conduct sweeps in the border area beginning Tuesday (it is unclear if this means operations are currently underway, or if the deployment is moving forward). KUNA intimates the operations will be an Iraqi led endeavor, but no doubt the Marines based in Qaim as well as Special Operations units, Air Force, Naval and army artillery assets will participate.
This news coincides with an article in the San Francisco Chronicle that claims al Qaeda has gained control of the desert towns of Husaybah, Karabila, Sada, Qaim, and Ubaydi. Earlier this month, similar rumors about Haditha were reported, while the claim of the establishment of the “Islamic Republic of Qaim” were dismissed by Marine Major Neil Murphy as a “crock”.
Recently, Lieutenant Colonel Julian Alford, commander of the 3/6 Marines in Qaim reports the terrorists are threatening the townsfolk with beheadings if they did not clear the area. LTC Julian states “For the time being, they run these towns.” Al Qaeda is posting signs warning residents not to cooperate with the Coalition, and has passed out flyers threatening to behead residents of the towns if they do not leave. Colonel Stephen Davis, commander of the Marines Regimental Combat Team 2, states that “Marine forces have played a game of cat and mouse with the insurgency up and down the Euphrates River valley.”
The likelihood is that Colonel Davis, LTC Julian and Major Murphy are all correct. al Qaeda has continually run up the black flag in this region and elsewhere to grab media headlines, and the Marines have continually moved in to eject the terrorists or have conducted numerous strikes at their infrastructure and leadership. There have not been enough forces available to police every town in western Anbar, and the Coalition’s strategy of targeted airstrikes and raids is designed to keep the enemy off balance. LTC Julian alludes to this when he states “have seen a lot of guys in black pajamas and black ski masks and with weapons, and we’ve killed a number of them.”
Whether or not al Qaeda controls the small towns in the region is irrelevant. What does matter is the Coalition, and particularly the Iraqi Army, is prepared to move into Qaim in force. LTC Julian states the operations along the eastern end of the Euphrates River has driven the insurgents and al Qaeda westward. He estimates that upward to 400 fighters are in the region, and the majority are foreign. There are 3,000 Iraqi soldiers prepared to move into the region “soon” .
The pieces are in place to move on Qaim. Col. Davis states the City of Hit is secure, with a strong Marine and Iraqi security force presence. The elimination of the al-Ahwal Brigade in Hit underscores Coalition’s freedom of action and the level of cooperation from the local population in Hit. Rawah has a major base of operations. Habbaniyah, Ramadi, Khan Al Baghdadi, Al Asad Air Base, the Haditha Dam and Qaim all sport a significant Coalition presence, including Iraqi Security Forces [see this article on US and Iraqi forces being moved into the area and the accompanying map]. The Euphrates is clearly being segmented to force the insurgents into smaller and smaller regions.
The San Francisco Chronicle inadvertently gets to the heart of the issue, when it states “Insurgent forces have in the past controlled major towns in Iraq, especially in the so-called Sunni triangle north and west of Baghdad, including Fallujah, Ramadi and, most recently, Haditha.” These cities were major jewels in al Qaeda and the insurgency’s crowns.
Today, Fallujah, Ramadi, Hit and other towns along the eastern branch of the Euphrates River are under Coalition control [with the exception of Haditha, whose status is unclear]. al Qaeda and the insurgency now claim they control the towns of Husaybah, Karabila, Sada, Qaim, and Ubaydi. These are towns with small populations on the outer edge of Iraq, far from the core of power in Iraq. The insurgency is being driven westward, and the Coalition is in pursuit.
This does not mean that al Qaeda and the insurgency cannot conduct attacks within Baghdad and other major cities. They continue to do so, and will be a deadly foe for some time. But these attacks do not forward the goals of al Qaeda and the insurgency – driving the Americans from Iraq and destabilizing the Iraqi government. With without control of territory and safe havens within Iraq, conducting an effective insurgency becomes increasingly difficult, particularly for al Qaeda, whose brutality has been rejected by large swaths of the native insurgency.
Bill Roggio is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Editor of FDD’s Long War Journal.