Combat Outpost Corregidor, Baghdad Province: A crucial indicator of success or failure of the “surge” – the deployment of an additional five US combat brigades and supporting soldiers – is the ability of US forces to involve the local population to provide for security. The crux of the Gen. David Petraeus’ counterinsurgency plan for Iraq is to provide the security to allow the local, provincial, and central governments to move forward with political accommodations. Security comes first; the more difficult political compromises needed to reconcile the reconcilable come second. To gauge the progress of the surge, we visited Combat Outpost Corregidor, which is situated in the Baghdad Belts, the regions surrounding the capital where the insurgency has staged attacks into the capital and established bases of operations.
We saddled up with Bravo Troop, 1st Battalion, 89th Regiment of the 2nd Brigade, 10th Mountain Division, commanded by Capt. Christian Cosner. Bravo Troop and the 2/10 Mountain had their tour extended from 12 to 15 months in support of the new counterinsurgency plan. The 2/10 has been in Iraq for 12 months and would have left for home by now.
After a quick introduction to the troops, the convoy of up-armored Humvees headed out from Camp Striker – part of the sprawling network of Camps south of Baghdad – to Camp Corregidor, a combat outpost near the town of Haswa in southern Baghdad Province.
The first leg of the trip was down Main Supply Route Tampa, the main artery that runs north-south and is a vital supply line from Kuwait in the south to points north of Baghdad. The massive supply columns and smaller convoys running up and down Tampa are frequent targets for both Sunni and Shia insurgents alike.
This particular stretch of Tampa used to be particularly dangerous for Iraqi and Coalition forces – over 20 attacks a week were reported on this segment of Tampa just a few months ago. Recently, the attacks on this stretch of Tampa have been averaging two to three a week, and some weeks no attacks are encountered. But even this number can be deceptive, as a found and disable improvised explosive device, or IED, is counted as an attack incident. “Some of the IEDs found on this route are dummies,” Cosner noted.
The convoy headed off the hard-paved primary road of Route Tampa onto secondary paved and dirt roads snaking through sprawling farmlands crossed with irrigation ditches. The roads are narrow and lined with high reeds – perfect sites to plant deadly roadside bombs or launch ambushes. But the insurgency remained silent this day, and uneventful convoys have become the norm for Bravo Troop and other units operating in this area.
Combat Outpost Corregidor is unlike any forward base I have seen in Iraq. The outpost, which is adjacent to the town of Haswa, was established in the mansion-like compound of a sheikh who has long since fled Iraq. The outpost was set up in April 2007, and Bravo troop deployed here in May. There are three phone lines, an Internet cafe with four computers, satellite television, a separate dinning facility and a gym. Most of the outpost is air conditioned, and what is not, will soon be.
The outpost is currently being upgraded, with troops operating circular saws and running electrical lines late into the evening. Many of the soldiers here would rather be out here at this outpost than at the headquarters at Camp Striker.
The area of operations
Corregidor is located in southern Baghdad province, just southwest of the capital. The outpost is in the heart of Area of Operations (AO) Wolverine, approximately 240 square kilometers of farmland roughly delimited by Anbar province to the west, Yusifiyah to the south, and Route Tampa to the north.
The Haswa region is largely split into eastern and western sectors, with the western areas largely Sunni, and the eastern areas largely Shia. Today, the Sunni areas are secure, and the west while quiet, serves as an area where the Mahdi Army conducts executions of those captured elsewhere, and dumps and buries their bodies in the farmlands. But there is little violence directed at Coalition troops, Iraqi Security Forces, or the local population.
The Haswa area, which is part of the notorious Triangle of Death, was a hotbed of the insurgency. Al Qaeda in Iraq used the region as a staging point into Baghdad, Anbar, and northern Babil province. In nearby Mahmudiyah, US soldiers from the 101st Airborne Division kidnapped and raped a 14-year-old Iraqi girl and murdered her family. Two US soldiers from this platoon were later captured and beheaded in nearby Mahmudiyah after their convoy was ambushed. Further south in Kargouli, al Qaeda fighters attacked a squad of US soldiers; seven were killed and three were captured. Two of the soldiers for the 10th Mountain Division are still missing, while the body of the third was found in the Euphrates River.
In AO Wolverine, catastrophic roadside bombings were a constant concern. Bravo Troop lost four soldiers to deadly IED attacks in January and February. All told, 10 of Bravo Troop’s cavalrymen have been awarded purple hearts and four of their vehicles were destroyed.
Like in Anbar, Diyala, and elsewhere, al Qaeda in Iraq went to violent extremes as they attempted to establish their Taliban-like Islamic State of Iraq. Iraqis had their fingers chopped off for smoking, their women were taken as brides in defiance of local customs, women were forced to cover up and dress conservatively, and commerce was destroyed as al Qaeda stopped the movement of goods deemed immoral.
Today, the change in the region could not be more dramatic. There are numerous Iraqi Army and Iraqi Police Volunteer checkpoints throughout much of Area of Operations Wolverine. The auxiliary local police – referred to as Concerned Citizens by Multinational Forces Iraq and as Iraqi Provincial Volunteers by Bravo Troop – are seen by many as the solution to tamping down the insurgency in Iraq’s most violent regions.
Security is the main concern of the tribal sheikhs in the Haswa region. At a meeting between Cosner, six Sunni tribal leaders and the commander of the Iraqi Provincial Volunteers, the sheikhs stressed that security is key to prosperity in the region. “Security comes first, then contracts will come,” said the leading sheikh to Cosner when the issues of reconstruction projects came up.
This is in stark contrast to the first tribal meeting I attended at Al Qaim in Anbar province after Operation Steel Curtain liberated the region from al Qaeda’s grip in 2005. Then, much to the consternation of the Marines and Iraqi Army in the region, the sheikhs squabbled over public works projects and the reopening of schools.
The concern for security expressed at the meeting with the sheiks can be visibly seen in the western Haswa region. One company of Iraqi Army and over 700 Iraqi Provincial Volunteers are active in the region. While Iraqi Army and Iraqi Police Volunteer checkpoints dot the region, the volunteer checkpoints are always manned and are better built than their army counterparts.
The local sheikhs are pushing their men to join the local police. During the latest recruiting drive for auxiliary police, 142 volunteered. The recruits are tested for physical fitness, and their biometric data – retinal scans, fingerprints, DNA, and photographs – is gathered for the vetting process. Soldiers in Bravo Troop are certain some of those joining the Iraqi Provincial Volunteers were actively fighting US soldiers just months ago, and sometimes this is confirmed by the biometric data.
The region is by no means fully secured. Neighboring tribal leaders are approaching the sheiks of Haswa for support, wishing to model their success.
The Sunni sheikhs are looking to support the Shia leaders just north of Yusifiyah who have tired of the Mahdi Army influence. Just as many Sunnis rejected al Qaeda’s presence, some Shia are looking to eject the Mahdi Army. When the security situation deteriorated in 2005 and 2006, many of the Shia turned to the Mahdi Army for protection. And like al Qaeda, the Mahdi Army has overreached by imposing its strict version of Shia Islam and interfering in local business with criminal enterprise.
The sheikhs’ motivations are by no means pure. They see cooperating with US forces as a means to ending the US presence. And the sheikhs benefit greatly from reconstruction contracts and the employment of their men in the auxiliary police. The sheikhs, in the time-honored traditions of the region, are skimming the pay from their volunteers.
But at the meeting with the local sheikhs, they were clear their intention for the auxiliary police is to become part of the legitimate Iraqi Security Forces. Gen. Adnan, the commander of the local Iraqi Provincial Volunteers, inquired about the requests to be reflagged as Iraqi Police and wanted the central government to provide uniforms, weapons, and equipment. The Ministry of the Interior has been resistant to empowering the Sunnis, and the current request is under consideration.
Arming the new militia?
A common perception in media and political circles is the American military is arming and organizing a new Sunni militia for the impending civil war once the US pulls out of Iraq. Numerous military officers interviewed by The Long War Journal discount this notion. As the auxiliary police are largely made up of former members of the insurgency, they are well-armed. In Anbar and Diyala provinces, the 1920s Revolution Brigades and the Mujahideen Army turned on al Qaeda in Iraq and other Sunni insurgents.
“We are not arming the Iraqi Provincial Volunteers,” said Cosner. “These guys have all the weapons they need, we’re just having them point them in the right direction,” against al Qaeda and the Mahdi Army. The US is providing pay for the local police as well as other assistance, but weapons are not handed over to the new security forces. The troops with Bravo see this as a good investment, as security in the region has improved dramatically while their chances of being wounded or killed have decreased significantly.
The impact of the surge in the Haswa region is impossible to ignore. The Sunni insurgency has gone fallow while the Mahdi Army is under assault. Attacks on US forces have dropped significantly. Reconstruction projects are underway. The local markets are open and packed with people, while local farmers and merchants are looking to push their products to markets outside the region.
The long-term affects of the surge are rightfully being questioned. The ultimate goal of the increase in forces is to provide the Iraqi government the space needed to push forward with contentious issues such as reconciliation, de-Baathification, and the oil law. But these issues cannot be resolved while the level of violence was at the levels of 2006. The surge has both reduced the violence in Iraq by well over 50 percent and fostered the “bottom-up” reconciliation process promoted by Gen. Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker.
Haswa has reaped the short-term benefits of the surge in US forces and the change in the counterinsurgency doctrine. With support from the central government, the success can be sustained in the long term.
David Tate contributed to this report
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