Unsafe Havens

While mop-up operations continue in Tal Afar, Coalition forces continue to keep al Qaeda off balance on the Euphrates and Tigris Rivers. Last night a raid was conducted in Haditha, where an al Qaeda aide was arrested and an airstrike was called in to destroy an enemy vehicle. Four of his associates were subsequently killed in the attack.

Several Days ago, al Qaeda’s Emir in Mosul, Abu Zayd, was killed. Zayd succeeded Mosul Commanders Abu Talha (former leader of Ansar al-Islam, captured) and Abu Zubayr (killed). Zayd also was the author of a scathing letter to Zarqawi, where he lamented the morale and living conditions of the terrorists in Mosul, and the notable decrease in the effectiveness of attacks in the city. He scolded the leadership for failing to provide proper equipment and squandering resources. His most telling and prophetic quote is as follows; “the fall of Mosul in the hands of the mujahedeen is possible, and because it relieves the pressure off the other cities such as al-Qaim, Tal Afar.” Success in Mosul has certainly led to the fall of Tal Afar. We’ll wait to see if he is correct about Qaim; we suspect he is.

In Ramadi, two more terrorist commanders are captured – Sheik Ammar, the leader of the Numan Brigade, and Sheik Sayf, one of Ammar’s cell leaders. In Saqlawiyah, a town west of Fallujah, nine terrorists are captured. In the Qaim region, we witnessed the removal of Abu Mohammad, Abu Ali and Abu Islam, all dangerous and known al facilitators and commanders, along with hundreds of al Qaeda foot soldiers.

The insurgents have changed their tactics and no longer attempt to fortify cities and towns to resist Coalition assaults, as they did in Fallujah last fall and Qaim this spring. This was first noted at the end of Operation Quick Strike in Haditha, and the assault on Tal Afar has also shown paucity in enemy fortifications.

There are benefits and drawbacks to this tactic, for both the insurgency and the Coalition. For the insurgency, the abandonment of fortifications means they can move into and out of cities, without committing significant resources to defending the city. However, this means that the infrastructure needed to conduct the insurgency – bomb factories, ammunition dumps, safe houses – must be constantly moved, which requires resources of their own. And as resources are moved, they are more susceptible to detection and destruction. Finally, there is a psychological dimension to the failure to commit to defending cities: terrorists, particularly the supposed committed al Qaeda jihadis, are exposed as being more interested in protecting their own skins than dying for the cause of jihad. Over time, native Iraqi insurgents will be viewed as powerless in the face of U.S. and Iraqi military power. The Iraqi people will detect who the new strong horsein theregion is, and act accordingly.

For the Coalition, the melting away of insurgents and terrorists make them more elusive, and more difficult to kill or capture en masse. This creates problems for the Coalition, as the jihadis in particular have no intention of reaching a political solution, and are best eliminated. But the departure of the terrorists from the cities makes it easier to retake insurgent strongholds, with minimal civilian casualties and destruction of homes and infrastructure. While Tal Afar is being equated to Fallujah in terms of destruction and death, this is clearly not the case, and claims to this affect have gained little traction in the media.

The insurgency’s unwillingness to create “another Fallujah” is telling. Forcing the Coalition to conduct heavy urban fighting in Iraq’s cities has been touted as a recruiting coup for al Qaeda and the insurgency by many members of the media. If this is truly the case, why hasn’t the insurgency used this tactic, particularly during the high-profile assault on Tal Afar?

Perhaps Fallujah cost the insurgency dearly, the recruiting benefits were not as advertised, and a repeat in Tal Afar could not be afforded. Whatever the case, when confronted, the insurgents and al Qaeda clearly prefer to flee than fight. This makes the Coalition’s job of reoccupying and rebuilding along the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers less difficult than anticipated, both politically and militarily.

Bill Roggio is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Editor of FDD's Long War Journal.

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  • GJ says:

    This talk of urban warfare brings to mind much of what was reported early on. Time and time again the talk of urban warfare would result in high casualties, mainly because we weren’t prepared for it. Once again the military proves the media wrong. I worry every time I hear of a military engagement because the media has so ingrained the thinking of the public we automatically assume the worst.
    It’s refreshing to read this blog every day. We would be so much better off today if we’d had something like this during Vietnam. I doubt we’d even had this war today if it were the case. The most apparent is Somalia and the Vietnam syndrome which caused bin Laden to continue his acts. If Vietnam were a resounding success and we were viewed as strong I doubt we would have those who’d even dare challenge us, including the Soviet Union.
    So these blogs and other sites are doing a greater service than you may even realize.

  • leaddog2 says:

    Based on their writing, the safest haven for the al-Queda killers is probably the editorial room of the New York Times. The Times has worshipped Joe Stalin since the 1950’s, you know! They see bin Laden and Zarqawi as Stalin’s successors.

  • Lorenzo says:

    I wonder if ever the New York Times time will run out?

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