Al Qaeda strikes in Baqubah nd along the Iranian border; 5th Division general relieved of command; the campaign looms
The province of Diyala, where al Qaeda has established its command headquarters over the past year, has been the scene of increased activity of the past several days. Al Qaeda conducted a sophisticated attack in a Kurdish village in the north, and a coordinated attack on a military outpost and a bank in Baqubah The U.S. detained two al Qaeda leaders in a raid in the city, while the general commanding the 5th Iraqi Army Division was relieved of his command. The recent events signal the Diyala Campaign is on the horizon as both sides seek to consolidate their positions in the province.
Today, al Qaeda launched an attack at a U.S. combat outpost in Baqubah the provincial capital and al Qaeda in Iraq’s capital of its political front, the Islamic State of Iraq, according to Al Jazeera. About 50 al Qaeda fighters hit the outpost, and U.S. Strykers, attack helicopters and combat aircraft were called in to reinforce the U.S. troops. At least six al Qaeda were killed in the attack, an anonymous Iraqi Army officer told Al Jazeera. “One resident, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals from fighters, said he heard heavy machinegun fire and then men shouting ‘Allahu Akbar'”.
On May 18, “gunmen in four vehicles laid an ambush in central Baqubah tor government accountants [carrying] one billion Iraqi dinars [$860,000] as a monthly social security program fund for poor families.” On the same day, 3 American soldiers were killed in an unspecified location after their vehicle was struck by an IED.
On Saturday, al Qaeda launched an attack against the largely Kurdish village of Qara Lus, which is about 60 miles east of Baqubah on the Iranian border. Al Qaeda fighters dressed as Iraqi soldiers, slipped through the Iraqi Army checkpoints and proceeded to feign a security operation in the town. “They then searched the houses and ordered the people to leave. They separated men from the women and children and then they shot at the men, killing 13 immediately and two others a little later,” said Brigadier General Nadhim Sharif, the commander of Iraqi border forces in Diyala Province.
Earlier in the week, al Qaeda conducted a chlorine suicide bombing in the town of Abu Sayadah. Forty-five were killed and 60 wounded in the chlorine suicide attack, al Qaeda’s tenth successful employment of the poisonous gas in Iraq. Elsewhere in Diyala, al Qaeda “abducted 21 civilian passengers at a fake checkpoint near Al-Ghalibiya” and brought them to Al-Hashemeyat, which is a known al Qaeda stronghold.
Coalition forces – or Task Force 145, the hunter killer teams devoted to dismantling al Qaeda’s leadership and network – conducted a raid in Baqubah /a> on May 18, and captured “two individuals allegedly associated with the command network of al Qaeda in Iraq.”
As al Qaeda conducts its mini-offensive in Diyala, Major General Shakir Hulail Hussein, the commander of the 5th Iraqi Army Division, was relieved of his command and replaced by Brigadier General Abdul-Hussein al-Timimi. “I think it is a good decision and the replacement should have taken place months ago,” said Saman Assi Talabani, an Iraqi general who reported the news, citing “a lot of mistakes” that had “made the security situation worse and out of control.”
Maj. Gen. Hussein was relieved a little over a week after Brig. Gen. Dana J. H. Pittard and Lt. Gen. Ali Ghaidan Majid, the commander of ground forces in Iraq, visited his headquarters in Diyala. The New York Times documented the visit, in which Maj. Gen. Hussein appeared less than certain in the status of his forces and when his division would be ready for independence from U.S. forces. The 5th Division, along with the 7th Division – the youngest Iraqi Army division – is still under U.S supervision.
As the U.S drew back from Diyala in the fall of 2006, Maj. Gen. Hussein conducted large operations and rounded up large numbers of Sunnis, while being accused of largely neglecting the activities of the Shia death squads of Muqtada al Sadr. The security situation in Diyala deteriorated under his watch, and Lt. Gen. Ali appears to have lost faith in his ability to command after the visit on May 9.
Recent moves by al Qaeda, as well as by U.S. and Iraqi forces, likely indicate that the Diyala Campaign is coming, and soon. The Iraqi military, which plans to add an unspecified number of troops to the province along with at least one additional U.S. combat brigade, is installing more reliable commanders prior to opening up the new offensive. Competent leadership in the Iraqi Army is required to coordinate efforts with the newly created the Diyala Awakening, the grouping of anti-al Qaeda tribal, religious, and political figures, as the tribal and ethnic dynamics are far more complex in Diyala as they are in Anbar province.
Al Qaeda wants to maintain the pressure on U.S. and Iraqi Security Forces and keep the political and media pressure on the American government. Al Qaeda is also attempting to maintain its base of operations in Diyala, which serves as a launch point for attacks into Baghdad. The operation on the Iranian border may also be a sign the terror group is attempting to secure its fall back position. The U.S. and Iraq military wants to cordon the province to prevent al Qaeda from escaping, and create a kill box to eliminate al Qaeda’s forces. Al Qaeda may be attempting to secure their exit into Iran.
Bill Roggio is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Editor of FDD’s Long War Journal.