Baghdad and the Belts. Red bordered units identified as active in offensive operations. Click map to view.
A status update on the operations in the Baghdad Belts and beyond
Operation Phantom Thunder, the name of the overarching operation to secure the Baghdad Belts, is now in its fifth day. As noted yesterday, Phantom Thunder is a corps-level operation, with multiple U.S. and Iraqi divisions engaged on multiple fronts. Iraqi Security Forces and Multinational Forces Iraq are engaged in intense fights in four main theaters: Baghdad proper, and the belts regions consisting of Diyala and southern Salahadin provinces to the north, northern Babil province to the south, and eastern Anbar province to the west of Baghdad. The fighting has been the most intense in the city of Baqubah the provincial capital of Diyala.
The concurrent operations in each theater have been named in most cases. Operation Arrowhead Ripper, managed by Multinational Division North is underway in Baqubah nd greater Diyala province. Multinational Division Central is running two operations: Operation Marne Torch southwest of Baghdad and Operation Commando Eagle to the southeast. The current operation in eastern Anbar, managed by Multinational Forces West has not yet been named. Operation Fardh al-Qanoon (otherwise known as the Baghdad Security Plan), which officially kicked off in mid-February, is managed by Multinational Division Baghdad and the Iraqi Baghdad Operational Command.
Operation Arrowhead Ripper
The large portion of the media attention has focused on the battle in Baqubah as this is where the brunt of the heavy fighting is occurring. Baqubah s the provincial capital of Diyala as well as al Qaeda’s proclaimed capital of its rump Islamic State of Iraq. Hundreds, and upwards of 1,000 al Qaeda fighters are believed to be holed up in the city in prepared fighting positions. The city has been mined with IEDs and booby-trapped homes, and seeded with snipers.
Michael Gordon reported U.S. troops moving into western Baqubah where they found well-prepared medical aid stations and field hospitals. “The hospital, uncovered by troops from the Fifth Battalion, 20th Infantry, was equipped with oxygen tanks, defibrillators, generators and surgical equipment, as well as pieces of insurgent propaganda,” noted Mr. Gordon. Baqubah nd greater Diyala province is al Qaeda country.
“At least 41 insurgents have been killed, five weapons caches have been discovered, 25 improvised explosive devices have been destroyed and five booby-trapped houses have been discovered and destroyed,” Multinational Forces Iraq reported last evening.
The 3rd Stryker Brigade Combat Team of the 2nd Infantry Division (3/2) appears to be shouldering the brunt of the combat. The soldiers from the 3/2 “killed 24-36 enemy fighters and detained nine,” according to Mike Gilbert of the News Tribune. “They found and destroyed 16 other roadside bombs, four houses that had been rigged to explode, and two car bombs. They found two safe houses, destroyed what he described as a mobile weapons cache, and captured two other weapons caches, including ‘a significant IED cache.'”
Both Michael Gordon and Michael Yon, who are embedded in Baqubah reported U.S. and Iraqi troops are receiving valuable intelligence from the residents of Baqubah “A positive indicator on the 19th and the 20th is that most local people apparently are happy that al Qaeda is being trapped and killed,” Michael Yon wrote. “Civilians are pointing out IEDs and enemy fighters, so that’s not working so well for al Qaeda.”
While the reporting from the regions outside Baqubah s sparse, there are indications engagements are also ongoing in the Diyala River valley.
Operations Marne Torch and Commando Eagle
Multinational Division Central, the newly created command to deal with the southern Baghdad Belts, has two concurrent major operations ongoing in its area of operations. Marne Torch is focusing on the city and surrounding regions of Arab Jabour, southeast of Baghdad. Commando Eagle is focusing on the Mahmudiyah region southwest of Baghdad.
“To date, Marne Torch and Iraqi army units have detained more than five dozen suspected extremists and destroyed more than 17 boats on the Tigris River that are responsible for transporting accelerants into Baghdad,” Multinational Forces Iraq reported in a press release. “U.S. forces killed five insurgents, discovered and destroyed 12 improvised explosive devices, and detained 13 wanted individuals.”
Operation Commando Eagle began on June 21, and was described as a “mix of helicopter-borne air assaults and Humvee-mounted movements, included Soldiers from several battalions of the 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 10th Mountain Division (Light Infantry) out of Fort Drum, N.Y., and the 4th Brigade, 6th Iraqi Army Division.”
The operation has yielded 29 suspected insurgents and numerous weapons caches, including one containing “75 CDs of propaganda and terror techniques instructing methods to commit kidnappings and to shoot down coalition helicopters.”
The Mahmudiyah region contains the notorious “Triangle of Death,” an area where al Qaeda and Sunni insurgents have established bases of operations to attack Baghdad and launch attacks on the Shia areas to the south. Three U.S. soldiers were captured in the region in mid-May, and two of the soldiers are still missing.
Operation ??? in eastern Anbar
Multinational Forces West has yet to release the name of the ongoing operations in eastern Anbar province. But the scope of the operation in eastern Anbar is now clearer. In an Associated Press interview with Brigadier General John Allen, the deputy commander of Multinational Forces West, the hot spots in the province were identified.
Brig. Gen. Allen noted there are three main focal points: Fallujah, Karma, and the Thar Thar region. The Fallujah piece includes moving into each of the 11 neighborhoods of the city and “establishing very quickly neighborhood watch organizations and a police precinct headquarters.” [See The Fourth Rail’s interview with Colonel Richard Simcock, the commanding officer of Regimental Combat Team – 6 for more details on the operation to clear Fallujah.]
The operation to secure the Fallujah neighborhoods is called Alljah. “The operation is similar to what another unit did in the city of Ramadi,” said Maj. George S. Benson, executive officer of 2nd Battalion, 6th Marines “We’re capitalizing on the success of Ramadi and using many of the same techniques.”
Fallujah is expected to be fully secured by August. U.S. forces expect to clear Karma, the poisonous al Qaeda haven northeast of Fallujah, and the Thar Thar region by July. “We’re going to clear Karma here very shortly,” Brig Gen Allen told the Associated Press, as he described the town as a “way station” to and from Baghdad. “We’re going to start churning up the ground north on the grounds of Thar Thar … a spot where we haven’t had forces before.”
Captain Eric Coulson, the commanding officer of an Army Engineer company in the Fallujah Ramadi corridor and author of Badgers Forward described the situation in eastern Anbar in an interview today. “Al Karma continues to be the most challenging area in Multinational Forces West’s area of operations, followed by Zaidon. Karma is the one place we can be guaranteed to find IEDs every night.”
Captain Coulson also discussed the improved security situation in Fallujah and the Habbaniyah and Amiriyah regions. “Fallujah gets better by the day,” he noted. “Most of the area west of the river seems to be stable. There are lots of tribes and Iraqi Police providing local security in the Habbaniyah and Amiriayh/Ferris areas. The truth is it is very quiet.”
Battling the Mahdi Army; raiding al Qaeda
As the major offensive is ongoing in the belts, the pressure is being kept up on Muqtada al Sadr’s Mahdi Army as well as al Qaeda’s network throughout Iraq.
On June 20 Iraqi Special Forces raided Sadr City and captured a “key insurgent leader” along with two associates. “This individual is allegedly responsible for coordinating and conducting kidnappings, death squad killings and improvised explosive device attacks against innocent civilians and Iraqi and Coalition Forces,” reported Multinational Forces Iraq. “The primary suspect is allegedly responsible for supplying vehicles, identification materials, and uniforms to support insurgent activities such as the kidnappings and extra-judicial killing of Iraqi citizens. He is also alleged to have received new technologies to upgrade improvised explosive devices that would be used to target Iraqi and Coalition Forces.”
This comes as General David Petraeus announced that an “Iran-backed” secret cell of Mahdi Army was behind the kidnapping of five British civilians in Baghdad last May. “We think that it is the same network that killed our soldiers in Karbala in an operation back in January,” General Petraeus told The Times. “We killed the head of that network less than a week before the operation that detained those British civilians. It was already planned and carried out by his followers. It is a secret cell of Jaish al-Mahdi [al-Mahdi Army] not all of which are under control of Moqtada al-Sadr.” General Petraeus is referring to the Iranian backed Qazali Network, which the U.S. has been actively working to dismantle.
The operations against al Qaeda’s nationwide network also continue. Raids on Wednesday and Thursday in Mosul, Karma, Fallujah, and “north of Baghdad” netted 11 al Qaeda. Coalition forces have positively identified an al Qaeda leader from the Karma region who was killed on June 17. “Hussayn Awath Hussayn Hawawi, also known as Abu Thabbit, was a Libyan foreign fighter with connections to the North African foreign fighter network and ties to al Qaeda in Iraq Intelligence reports indicate he moved at least 30 North African fighters into Iraq” after escaping during a prison break in Mosul in March. “Hawawi is also believed to be involved in suicide bombing operations, and his foreign fighters allegedly conducted a number of attacks on Coalition Forces in Anbar province in late May.”
The concurrent operations in the Baghdad Belts, combined with the effort to secure Baghdad and the Special Forces raids on al Qaeda’s network will place a great strain on the terror group if the momentum is carried through the summer. Iraqi and Coalition fForces are striking hard in the heart of al Qaeda and Sunni insurgent havens in Diyala, Babil, and Anbar while squeezing the terror groups in the capital and conducting intelligence driven raids to keep the enemy off balance.
Al Qaeda can chose to stand and fight, and may do so in some places. But will eventually attempt to flee the hot zones in central Iraq for safer grounds. This will push them further from Iraq’s center of gravity, while placing them at risk while attempting to reestablish their networks. Northwestern Iraq – Niwena, Salahadin, and Kirkuk – will be a likely destination, however some of the most experienced Iraqi Army units are operating in the region. Some of them are taking up blocking positions to prevent the infiltration of terrorists attempting to escape Operation Phantom Thunder.
Bill Roggio is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Editor of FDD’s Long War Journal.