By DJ Elliott, CJ Radin and Bill Roggio
With the passing of the four year anniversary of the commencement of Operation Iraqi Freedom, Iraqi and Coalition security forces continue to press with reestablishing security inside the capital and the outer Baghdad belts. The Baghdad Security plan continues to show signs of progress. Sectarian murders have been dramatically reduced inside Baghdad, as have the mass casualty suicide attacks which plagued the city on a regular basis. Al Qaeda is still able to conduct suicide and car bomb attacks inside the city, but the effects of these attacks have been dramatically reduced.
In the past, the most devastating bombs were placed on large trucks – dump trucks, fuel tankers, and other large vehicles and driven into open markets to kill as many Shia as possible. Mohammad Fadhil, an Iraqi blogger who lives in Baghdad, notes the number of checkpoints in the city are increasing rapidly, and are having an effect in reducing major attacks. “With the constant force buildup many streets now host multiple checkpoints, both fixed and mobile,” notes Mr. Fadhil. “All are positioned in a manner that allows soldiers in one to have visual contact with those in the next one. From my personal experience I can tell that the men staffing the checkpoints do not take their job lightly.”
There have been no major changes to the disposition of U.S. or Iraq forces inside Baghdad. The U.S. still has three of the five combat brigades and an aviation combat brigade to deploy in support of the security operation. The U.S. 3rd Brigade Combat Team from the 3rd Infantry Division has been reported as being in Iraq, however there is no information on the location of this brigade. The question remains is whether the brigade will be moved into Baghdad, or deploy into the provinces – perhaps Diyala – to pursue al Qaeda.
The Coalition and Iraqi government are also in the process of retraining and redeploying the Iraqi police. One major weakness of the Iraqi Security Forces in 2006 was the Iraq National Police. The majority of the units were infiltrated with militias. Their deployment inside Baghdad without Coalition oversight partially led to the failure of the previous Baghdad security plan – Operation Together Forward.
The Coalition created Operation Quicklook, a program designed to purge the police battalions of militia and insurgents, issue new uniforms and identification badges and retrain and reequip the forces for urban combat and security operations. Phase I was inspections, Phase II is re-bluing, re-equipping, replacements (purge) and Brigade training, Phase III will be field training/ops and Phase IV is when the Ministry of the Interior takes over Phase I thru III. The most heavily infiltrated brigades were put through Quicklook II first. The 8th Brigade of the 2nd Iraqi Police Division lost over 40 percent of its ranks; the 4th Brigade of the 1st Iraqi Police Division was attritted by 30 percent. One year ago only one brigade commander and 2 battalion commanders were Sunni. Today, 4 of 9 brigade commanders and 13 of 27 battalion commanders are Sunni. Half of the Brigades have gone through Quicklook II., and at least three are now serving inside Baghdad along with other police units that haven’t yet gone through the program.
The deployment of Iraqi and U.S. forces inside Baghdad may be having some impact on al Qaeda. “Over the last month, officials said that under Operation Law Enforcement more than 100 Al Qaeda operatives were killed or captured in the Baghdad area,” notes the Middle East Newline. Al Qaeda is said to be fleeing Baghdad as the security plan expands throughout the city.
Al Qaeda in Iraq’s most dangerous weapons remain the car and suicide bombs. Over the past week, al Qaeda conducted a steady stream of attacks inside Baghdad. The targets have been members of the Iraqi security services and the Shia community. Al Qaeda seeks to break the will of the security forces and incite the Shia to conduct reprisal attacks on Sunnis. The attacks have not been as deadly as was seen prior to the implementation of the Baghdad Security Plan.
This week, one major attack was reported inside Baghdad – a truck bomb that was aimed at a police outpost in the Doura district. Twenty were killed, including 16 police, and another 26 were wounded. Another major attack was aimed at Salam al-Zubaie, one of Iraq’s two Deputy Prime Ministers. Zubaie, who is a Sunni, was targeted at his mosque in Baghdad, and was wounded in the attack. The lead suspect is a member of his security detail, a relative of Zubaie who was detained as an insurgent and subsequently released at Zubaie’s request. Al Qaeda in Iraq claimed responsibility for the attack.
Outside, both al Qaeda and the Coalition are vying for supremacy in the flash point provinces of Anbar and Diyala. Coalition forces and the local tribes of the Anbar Salvation Council have begun clearing operations in the al Qaeda sanctuary of Ramadi. On March 20, the Anbar Salvation Council conducted one such operation in central Ramadi. Over Iraqi 500 police were involved. Forty-five suspected insurgents were detained during the operation, while one civilian was killed during an IED attack. Police “confiscated propaganda material and discovered several caches containing assault rifles, machine guns, and mortar and artillery shells used to produce improvised explosive devices.” On March 26, U.S. forces, along with Iraqi police and Army units began a large scale clearing op in western Ramadi. The violence in Ramadi has been halved since February due to the cooperation between the tribes, the Iraqi Security Forces, and the U.S. military.
Al Qaeda has been conducting its own dirty offensive in Anbar. On March 24, police in Ramadi seized a truck filled with “five 1000-gallon barrels filled with chlorine and more than two tons of explosives.” The truck was believed to have been aimed at the Jazeera police station, and he driver was detained and is being interrogated. Al Qaeda has conducted seven suicide chlorine attacks this year, including five in Anbar province. Thirty-two were killed in the attacks and over 600 were poisoned by the chlorine gas.
Diyala continues to remain a major base of operations for al Qaeda and its command center to conduct attacks into the Baghdad. A major operation to clear Diyala is in the pipeline, according to CBN News. “Sources say the initial plans involve three distinct strikes from three different directions. The goal is to destroy enemy training facilities and prevent al Qaeda forces from escaping,” notes Erick Stakelbeck. “The insurgents are left with two choices–either to stand and fight or to retreat into Iran–at which point, they’re Iran’s problem,” according to Daveed Gartenstein-Ross. During an operation last week, American forces freed over 200 hostages in Muqdadiya. Many of those freed were Iraqi police. Al Qaeda has been working to dismantle the police in Diyala province, which pose a major threat to their rule.
Iraqis living in Diyala are asking the Iraqi government to fight al Qaeda and prevent the province from “turning Diyala cities [into the next] Taliban emirate,” notes Al Saabah. “Citizens said that the situation in the cities of Baquba, Muqdadyia, Khalis and Bald Ruz are turning into a major humanity disaster, especially after al Qaeda issued a list of all forbidden activities including] working at governmental offices, ownership of satellite and internet sets, as well as the destruction of mobile phone towers.”
Meanwhile, the Iraqi government and Coalition forces maintain the pressure on Muqtada al Sadr, the leader of the Mahdi Army, and his backers in Iran. Sadr’s militia is “breaking into splinter groups,” the Associated Press reports. About 3,000 Mahdi fighters are said to be “financed directly by Iran and no longer loyal” to Sadr. The hundreds from splinter Mahdi force have “crossed into Iran for training by the elite Quds force.” Qais al-Khazaal, a former aide of Sadr, is said to be leading the Iranian backed faction. The rest of the Mahdi Army is currently in reconciliation talks with the Iraqi government.
The Coalition had a big break in getting to the bottom of the Karbala raid in January, which resulted in the kidnapping and subsequent murder of five American soldiers. Coalition forces captured Qais Khazali, his brother Laith Khazali, and several other members of the Khazali network. Khazali “has been a spokesperson for Muqtada al Sadr, and is commonly referred to as his senior aide,” notes IraqSlogger. An American military intelligence official informs us Khazali is a member of Iran’s Qods force, which is believed to be behind the Karbala attack.
Iran continues to interfere with Coalition and Iraqi efforts to secure Iraq. On March 23, naval elements from the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps captured 15 British sailors and marines in Iraqi waters in the Shatt al Arab waterway. The British servicemen had completed a boarding mission and were subsequently surrounded by the IRGC navel forces. The Brits have been transported back to Tehran and there are rumors they will be prosecuted for espionage. This came as the United Nations Security Council passed Resolution 1747, which placed sanctions on Iran for its failure to halt its nuclear enrichment program. Iran is likely looking for the release of senior Qods Force members captured in Irbil. Over 300 members of the Iranian intelligence forces are said to be in U.S. custody in Iraq.
As we have stressed in the past, the new Iraqi security plan is still in its infancy, and it is too soon to know if the operations will succeed of fail. The initial signs are encouraging, but the enemy always retains the ability to adjust their tactics. The fracturing of the Mahdi Army is a positive indicator for success in Baghdad, however it is unclear if the Iranian backed group will step up attacks in the city. Sadr’s political power has waned while he remains in Iran, however his return to Iraq could signal a change. Iran continues to arm and train militias inside Iraq. Al Qaeda’s support base in Diyala must be broken. The signs are good that al Qaeda is being sidelined in Anbar as the Sunni tribes and former insurgents take the fight to al Qaeda in Ramadi. The Iraqi government and Multinational Forces Iraq must remain agile to deal with these threats, and must remain on the offensive in the provinces to keep al Qaeda on its heels.
Bill Roggio is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Editor of FDD’s Long War Journal.