In today’s press briefing from Baghdad, Lt. Gen. Raymond Odierno, the Commanding General of Multinational Corps – Iraq, provided an operational update on Operation Phantom Thunder and its successor, Phantom Strike. Odierno reported the security situation in Baghdad has greatly improved, and further explained the scope of Phantom Strike, the operation designed to pursue al Qaeda and the Iranian-backed Shia terror groups.
Operation Phantom Thunder, which began on June 15, focused on clearing al Qaeda and Iranian-backed extremists from the major population centers in Baghdad and the Belts regions of northern Babil, eastern Anbar, southern Salahadin, and Diyala provinces. Major clear and hold operations were conducted in Baqubah /a>, Arab Jabour, Mahmudiyah, Samarra, and Fallujah. At the same time, Coalition and Iraq forces pushed into areas previously ignored over the course of the past few years, denying al Qaeda and Shia terrorists the bases of operations to launch attack inside Baghdad.
Since Phantom Thunder began in mid-June, US and Iraqi Security Forces have killed 1,196 extremists, wounded 419, and detained 6,702 suspected insurgents, Odierno said. Of those killed or captured, 382 are considered high-value targets. Over the past two months, US and Iraqi Security Forces have found 1,113 weapons caches, 2,299 IEDs and disabled 52 car bombs. “The number of found-and-cleared IEDs, vehicle-borne IEDs and caches are approximately 50 percent higher than the same period last year, due in large part to effective tips provided by concerned Iraqi citizens,” Odierno said.
Phantom Thunder has had a noticeable effect on the security situation in Baghdad and beyond. “Total attacks are on a month-long decline and are at their lowest levels since August of 2006,” Odierno said. “Attacks against civilians are at a six-month low, IED attacks are a two-month decline and have a 45 percent found and cleared rate.” Inside Baghdad, civilian deaths are at the lowest levels since February 2006, when al Qaeda in Iraq destroyed the dome of the Golden Mosque in Samarra and incited the year-plus-long wave of sectarian reprisals, driven by brutal attacks by al Qaeda and the Mahdi Army.
Phantom Thunder is followed by Phantom Strike, which was launched on August 15 and “consists of simultaneous operations throughout Iraq focused on pursuing remaining AQI [al Qaeda in Iraq] terrorists and Iranian-supported extremist elements.”
Phantom Strike is designed to strike at al Qaeda and Shia terror bases largely in the rural regions in Baghdad and the Belts. The operation is fueled by intelligence derived from Phantom Thunder. In today’s briefing, Odierno noted that “with the elimination of safe havens and support zones due to Phantom Thunder, al Qaeda and Shi’a extremists have been forced into ever-shrinking areas, and it is my intent to pursue and disrupt their operations.” Odierno showed the “prioritized target boxes based on intelligence gained from Phantom Thunder in and around Baghdad, and noted “Phantom Strike operations are not limited just to these areas.”
The major areas Odierno refers to are the regions north and east of Baqubah n Diyala province as well as areas in Tamin, Salahadin, and Niwena provinces in the north, where al Qaeda in Iraq has stepped up attacks against civilians and Iraqi Security Forces. Iraqi and US forces launched Operation Lightning Hammer in Diyala province on the same day Phantom Strike was announced, and over 16,000 troops are pushing into al Qaeda havens in the Diyala River valley north of Baqubah
Since the “surge” of five additional US combat brigades was completed at the beginning of June, US and Iraqi forces have persistently remained on the offensive against al Qaeda in Iraq and the Iranian-backed Shia terror groups. Al Qaeda in Iraq has not had time to regroup and reestablish itself as US and Iraqi forces maintain the pressure with rolling operations. Just as the push to clear Baghdad began to ramp up with the “surge,” Phantom Thunder was launched in the major population centers in the Belts. Just as al Qaeda looks to move its operations into the less patrolled rural regions, Phantom Strike and Lightning Hammer were launched to tackle these regions.
This is a major difference from 2006, when Multinational Forces Iraq failed to conduct a cohesive battle plan to address al Qaeda and Sunni insurgency, while ceding large sections of Baghdad and portions of southern Iraq to the Mahdi Army. The attempt to secure Baghdad in 2006 failed as there was little effort to dislodge the terror groups from the Belts surrounding Baghdad.
Bill Roggio is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Editor of FDD’s Long War Journal.