By DJ Elliott, CJ Radin and Bill Roggio
The Baghdad Security Plan is now over one month old since its official announcement on February 14. While it is impossible to judge progress over the course of one month in a complex battlespace such as Baghdad, the initial signs are encouraging. Sectarian murders, the fuel for the potential Sunni – Shia civil war, have been dramatically reduced. Before the beginning of the operation, Scores of bodies were found executed daily, now the number is in the single digits. Massive car bomb attacks, which in the past have killed dozens and wounded hundreds, have been reduced.
While the number of car bombings have increased, their effectiveness has decreased. Over the past week only one significant suicide car bomb attack occurred inside Baghdad – an assassination attempt on the head of the Baghdad city council. Eight were killed in the explosion. The other attacks have been aimed at security forces and checkpoints, such at the roadside bombing that killed four U.S. troops patroling eastern Baghdad.
There have been few changes to the disposition of forces inside Baghdad over the past week. The 4th Brigade, 1st Infantry Division completed its deployment to Baghdad, and spread its four battalions into the Bayaa, Mansour and Doura districts. General David Petraeus announced an additional Combat Aviation Brigade will deploy to support operations. The deployment of the aviation brigade is being sped up by two months. Again, the U.S. Army still has an additional three combat brigades preparing to move into Iraq, and the deployment of the last brigade will not be complete until June.
One or more of these brigades may be deployed in the ‘outer belts’ of Baghdad – the surrounding regions where al Qaeda in Iraq is staging attacks into the capital. “Although the focus, the priority, clearly is Baghdad, anyone who knows about securing Baghdad knows that you must also secure the Baghdad belts, in other words, the areas that surround Baghdad,” General Petreaus said last week.
The Iraqi government and Coalition forces have stepped up the fight against al Qaeda in the restive province of Diyala. After the Baghdad Security Plan was announced, al Qaeda footsoldiers and commanders are believed to have fled Baghdad for Diyala. Up to 2,000 al Qaeda are believed to be operating from the region, and are conducting a commuter insurgency by surging car bombs into the capital. Al Qaeda has stepped up its campaign of intimidation and terror against the mixed Sunni and Shia tribes of Diyala.
Multinational Froces Iraq responded by redeploying a battalion of Strykers – about 700 soldiers and 100 of their Stryker combat vehicles from the 5th Battalion, 20th Infantry Regiment, 3rd Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division – from Baghdad to Baquba. The 5-20 Strykers met immediate resistance, and dozens of al Qaeda were killed, while one U.S. soldier was killed and 11 wounded during the initial day of fighting. Two Stryker combat vehicles were destroyed, one in a sophisticated roadside bomb attack and follow on ambush.
In Anbar province, al Qaeda in Iraq carried out one of its most despicable attacks to date. Al Qaeda launched three suicide truck bombers armed with chlorine gas and aimed them at civilian targets. The first chlorine bomber was stopped by Iraqi police at a checkpoint in Ramadi. He detonated his bomb, wounding a U.S. soldier and a civilian. The second struck at a neighborhood in Amiriya. Two police were killed and over 100 civilians were treated for Chlorine gas exposure. The third attack was aimed at a neighborhood in Fallujah. “Approximately 250 local civilians suffering from symptoms related to chlorine exposure,” according to the Multinational Forces Iraq press release.
The attacks were clearly an attempt by al Qaeda to terrorize the local population in Anbar province and decapitate the leadership of the Anbar Salvation Council, a grouping of tribes and former insurgents battling al Qaeda. “The second bomber [in Amiriya] targeted a tribal leader opposed to al Qaeda,” Reuters reported, while the Albu Issa tribe in Fallujah is supportive of the Anbar Salvation Front. Last week, General Petreaus and Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki visited Ramadi and met with Shiekh Abdul Sattar Abu Risha, the leader of the Anbar Salvation Council, and promised assistance to his organization.
The use of chemical weapons, no matter how crude, is a blatent violation of the Geneva Conventions. Al Qaeda targeted civilian neighborhoods and understood that hundreds of civilians could be killed or maimed in the resultant attack. This is the sixth such chlorine gas attack by al Qaeda since January.
This past week also saw an interesting development on the Sadr – Mahdi Army front. Muqtada al Sadr, the leader of the radical Mahdi Army militia who is in self exile in Iran, issued a statement that raises questions about the prospects of the U.S. maintaining a peaceful presence inside Sadr City.
During last Friday prayers, one of Sadr’s clerics read a statement urging the people of Sadr City to oppose the U.S. presence inside the neighborhood. “I trust that you have taken them as your enemies, for the enemies of God are your enemies, inevitably… unity against your enemy and shout ‘No, No, America! No, No Israel!, No, No Satan!'” The statement also called for his followers to reject sectarianism.
After prayers, a crowd of Sadr’s supporters, estimated at “more than a thousand,” turned out into the streets, repeating Sadr’s mantra of “No, no to America. No, no to Israel. No, no to Satan.” Sadr City has an estimated 2,000,000 residents, so the turnout was relatively small.
The U.S. has been in serious negotiations with elements of Sadr’s Mahdi Army, which has been behind much of sectarian murders in Baghdad and beyond. With Sadr and his senior lieutenants either in Iran or Syria, or going to ground outside of Baghdad, Sadr has lost significant command and control of his militia. The negotiations seriously threaten Sadr’s power base in Baghdad and the south. An assassination attempt on Rahim al-Darraji, the mayor of Sadr City, who has welcomed the U.S. presence inside Sadr City, is believed to have been conducted by Sadr’s supporters.
The events in Sadr city and Muqtada al Sadr’s influence bears close watching over the next month, as does the situations in Diyala and Anbar. The Baghdad Security Operation has shown guarded signs of progress the past month largely because the Mahdi Army has gone to ground. If the Mahdi Army emerges as an active foe in Baghdad, the ability to chase down al Qaeda in the provinces will be severely restricted.
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