Ongoing operations in eastern Anbar work to oust al Qaeda
As the Baghdad Security Plan progresses, a key element of the plan is securing the “belts” outside Baghdad province. The Baghdad Belts include Eastern Anbar province, northern Babil province, southern Salahadin and south and western Diyala. Securing eastern Anbar province, which includes the strategically important city of Fallujah, is vital in tamping down the insurgency.
Anbar province had long been a haven for al Qaeda and the Sunni insurgency. An overwhelming majority of the 1.3 million inhabitants of Anbar, the largest province in Iraq, are Sunnis with deep tribal ties across the borders of Syria, Jordan and Saudi Arabia. Anbar once held the distinction of being the most violent and dangerous province in Iraq,
But the situation in Anbar changed in 2006 after tribal leaders and insurgent groups began to turn on al Qaeda in Iraq. In al Qaeda’s attempt to impose a Taliban-like state and include Anbar in its Islamic State of Iraq, the terror group conducted a systematic campaign of murder and intimidation. Tribal leaders, cleric, members of the police forces and civilians were targeted and brutally murdered. Al Qaeda also turned many of the tribes against them by excessively extorting money from smuggling operations while imposing its strict version of sharia.
Although it wasn’t recognized by most analysts at the time, the tide turned in Anbar in the summer of 2006, with the creation of the Anbar Salvation Council and then the Awakening movement in Ramadi. Led by Sheikh Sattar al Rishawi, whose father was brutally murdered by al Qaeda, the Awakening gathered tribal leaders and Sunni insurgent groups to organize and fight al Qaeda’s attempt to dominate the Sunnis in Anbar. Recruiting for the local police forces skyrocketed in Ramadi and the surrounding regions, while attacks against U.S. forces plummeted.
Left without its base of Ramadi, which was once the most dangerous city in Iraq, al Qaeda and its allies moved eastward and attempted to reestablish operation in the Fallujah region. Al Qaeda was already entrenched in the Amiriyah, Zaidon and Karma areas. Violence in the cities and towns surrounding Fallujah increased in late 2006 as al Qaeda attempted to halt the spread of the Awakening movement in the eastern portion of the province.
The Long War Journal recently interviewed Colonel Richard Simcock, the Commander of Regimental Combat Team Six (RCT-6), the Marine regiment in charge of Fallujah and the regions of eastern Anbar province, know as AO Raleigh (Area of Operations Raleigh).
AO Raleigh includes Fallujah proper, Amiriyah and Ferris to the southeast, Zaidon to the east, Karma to the northeast and Saqlawiyah to the northwest. The city of Fallujah is the only city in Anbar province where the Iraqi Army owns the battlespace. The city is run by Iraqis, and has an elected mayor, 20 members on the city council and a police force the works closely with the Iraqi Army and U.S. forces in the region. Fallujah now has an estimated 400,000 residents as people continue to return to the city, and business is beginning to thrive, Col Simcock noted.
Col Simcock credits the success in Fallujah to three factors: the improvements local governance and the development of the security forces, tribal engagement and having the forces available to conduct permanent presence missions throughout the region. “Regimental Combat Team Six has more forces than any of the prior regimental combat teams serving in AO Raleigh,” he noted. “It has enabled me to go into more places in AO Raleigh than my predecessors were able to do.”
The tribal engagement piece has been critical to securing the region. There are four major tribes surrounding the city of Fallujah: the Zuba’a in Zaidon, the Albu Issa in Amiriyah and Ferris, the Jumali in Karma and the Mohemdi in Saqlawiyah.
Col Simcock explained that RCT-6 is now focusing on securing the four regions, using the additional forces allotted in the “surge” to provide a permanent presence and establishing the conditions for the Iraqi Security Forces to assume control over the battlespace. Combined with the Iraqi Army units and Provincial security forces in his area of operations, Col Simcock stated he has enough forces to get the job done.
There are now two Provincial Security Forces battalions operating in AO Denver. The Provincial Security Forces are a “huge combat multiplier,” as they provide local knowledge of the battlespace. The Provincial Security Forces are authorized by the Government of Iraq. The U.S. military provides training and equipment for the forces, and works with the units from their inception. The Iraqi Army was skeptical of the units at first, but the units have “proved their value to Iraqi Army” over the last two to three months.
The push to secure the areas outside Fallujah began earlier this year, with the focus of operations starting in Zaidon, and moving counterclockwise towards Amiriyah, then Karma and finally Saqlawiyah. Using a reinforced battalion made up of Marines and Army soldiers, backed by Iraqi Army and the newly created Provincial Security Forces, the units cordon and clear the target areas, establish local police forces and leave behind security units to back the police. This has been very effective in Zaidon and Amiriyah, Col Simcock noted.
Zaidon and Amiriyah, recently the scene of pitched battles between elements of the Anbar Awakening and al Qaeda, have been cleared. One of the critical aspects in dealing with Amiriyah was opening the road from Fallujah to the south. Once “Route Iron,” the main road between the cities was cleared of IEDs and secured, the logistical chain needed to support the Amiriyah police and security forces to the south.
A clear sign of success in engaging the local leaders to fight al Qaeda is their reaction to the establishment of local police forces and the actions of the sheikhs. “Terrorists are attacking not coalition forces down there, but are attacking the tribal elements…. provincial security forces supporting coalition actions,” Col Simcock said.
Last week, al Qaeda targeted a meeting of tribal sheikhs in Amiriyah. The suicide bomber killed 19 civilians and wounded 25 in the attack. “That’s bad the attack itself. The terrorists know they are in trouble, their acts of desperation… they are not having success.”
“I’ve seen this repeated time and time again, where the terrorists are trying to use murder and intimidation to prevent the duly elected representatives in places like Fallujah, or from a tribal aspect, when the sheikhs stand up to the terrorists,” Col Simcock stated. He noted al Qaeda’s tactics are backfiring, as the wholesale murder of civilians is turning the population against the terror group.
Col Simcock’s forces are now focusing on Karma. “Karma is the area where we just commenced major operations,” Col Simcock. “I’ll either kill them or chase them out of the area,” he noted while explaining the insurgent rarely stand up and fight U.S. forces in the open. The turnaround in Karma was recently noted by JD Johannes, who recently returned from an embed. “North Karma was starting to awaken,” he noted, as the residents were working with U.S. and Iraqi forces to secure the city.
The last region to be dealt with is Saqlawiyah, where Col Simcock noted he has the least amount of tribal engagement.
The establishment of the Awakening movement is credited with turning the security situation around in AO Denver. The creation of the anti al Qaeda front in the region “coincided with the U.S. election last year,” Col Simcock noted. “They watch our elections very, very closely,” and feared a U.S. pullout would leave the tribes to the privations of al Qaeda and its perverse Islamic State. The Awakening has been a boon for recruiting for the police. There are “more people that want to join the Iraqi police than places at the academy,” Col Simcock said.
The Fallujah region remains the most dangerous in Anbar province. The city of Fallujah holds a symbolic importance to al Qaeda, as its first bastion and the capital of its first and now defunct emirate in Iraq. Al Qaeda will not give up the city easily, but nor will the Iraqi Security Forces and the U.S. troops serving in the region.
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