An afternoon helicopter flight with Brigadier General Jim Huggins, the deputy commander of Multinational Forces Central, took us from Camp victory in southern Baghdad to the Adhamiyah neighborhood. Two Blackhawks, one with the general and his staff, another with his personal security detachment, flew low and fast.
By air, Baghdad appears deceptively peaceful. The city looks like a normal, functioning city, albeit with trash heaps in neighborhoods and the odd fortified military outposts dotting the landscape. People are driving cars and walking the streets. Children are playing soccer while women hang the laundry. Shops are open. Other than the occasional car bombs and IED attacks, which have decreased in frequency and lethality, the war in Baghdad largely occurs in the shadows.
The Blackhawk touched down in the hot afternoon sun at the helipad at Combat Outpost Apache. Apache is home of the 3rd Squadron, 7th Cavalry, 2nd Brigade Combat Team of 3rd Infantry Division, lead by Lieutenant Colonel Jeff Broadwater. The 1st Battalion, 1st Brigade of the 11th Iraqi Army Division is also stationed at Apache. While the 3/7 Cavalry is not part of Multinational Division Central — it falls under Multinational Division Baghdad — Huggins, as the deputy commander of the 3rd Infantry Division, wanted to visit his troops.
Combat Outpost Apache is built around the remains of one of Saddam Hussein’s bombed-out palaces on a bend of the Tigris River, just north of the International Zone. Adhamiyah was in the news earlier this year as the controversial wall was built to cordon off the neighborhood to prevent the Mahdi Army from attacking the Sunni neighborhood and to keep al Qaeda cells from striking out at adjacent Shia neighborhoods. An al Qaeda propaganda campaign likened the wall to the security fence that separates Israel and segments of Jerusalem from the Palestinian Territories. Prime Minister Maliki almost stopped construction of the wall until he learned al Qaeda’s intentions to stop it.
Since the building of the Adhamiyah wall, violence in the neighborhood has dropped significantly. Between April and the end of May, the number of deaths in Adhamiyah dropped 61 percent. But the threat in Adhamiyah still exists. The violence in the neighborhood is described as “Sunni on Sunni.” The attacks range from intimidation to extortion and crime.
During a briefing by Broadwater and his staff, the Islamic State of Iraq, al Qaeda’s political front, was described as the major threat in Adhamiyah. The Islamic State of Iraq in Adhamiyah was assessed to be made up of four major factions: Jaish al Islam (Islamic Army of Iraq), the Layth Abu Asad Cell, the Mohammad Koplin Cell, and Nassar’s Cell. When asked if the Islamic State of Iraq and the cells are considered al Qaeda, Broadwater said “absolutely.”
The 3/7 Calvary has received large numbers of tips from local Iraqis and has captured over half of the Islamic State of Iraq’s leaders, operatives, and the “opportunists” — those who conduct attacks for money. “Human intelligence has been crucial” in killing or capturing al Qaeda operatives and reducing the level of violence, said Broadwater. US and Iraqi troops have captured 117 of the 213 identified leaders, operatives, and opportunists in Adhamiyah, and the leadership is thought to have fled the neighborhood.
Al Qaeda in Iraq is believed to be throwing less experienced operatives into the fight in Adhamiyah, and the effectiveness of the attacks reflects this trend. “Simple” IEDs have accounted for many of the attacks, as al Qaeda bombers do not have time to lay more sophisticated traps such as deep-buried IEDs for Iraqi and Coalition troops. An increase in IEDs made with homemade explosives has been noted, indicating access to munitions is becoming more difficult to obtain.
As US and Iraqi troops have conducted more presence patrols and humanitarian outreaches, the al Qaeda in Iraq operatives have begun to conduct RPG attacks. These attacks are designed to drive a wedge between the US soldiers and the residents of Adhamiyah. Not only is al Qaeda trying to kill US soldiers, the terrorists are attempting to get US soldiers to patrol inside their vehicles and are intimidating the Iraqi population.
The Concerned Citizen movement — Iraqis organizing local security forces — has taken hold in Adhamiyah. Over 1,000 residents have volunteered to join the Concerned Citizens, and 50 are currently in an official training program. The Iraqi Army plays a crucial role in supporting the Concerned Citizens program. The Iraqi battalion has a formalized training program. Recruits receive instruction on weapons discipline, search techniques, and the rules of engagement from Iraqi noncommissioned officers. The Concerned Citizens, along with the Iraqi Police in Adhamiyah fall under the command of the Iraqi Army.
While the establishment of the Concerned Citizens has help reduce attacks, there has been little success with getting the volunteers to join the Iraqi Police. Like elsewhere in Iraq, the volunteers are worried that joining the police or Army will cause them to be deployed outside their neighborhoods.
A solution to how the Concerned Citizens will be incorporated into the Iraqi Security Forces is a major issue that needs to be resolved by the Iraqi government over the next several months. “There is window of opportunity, estimated at about six months” before the momentum of the Concerned Citizens movement may be squandered. Without the support and recognition of the central government, the movement may falter. “We’re about two and a half months into this,” said Huggins.
Despite the drop in violence in Adhamiyah, the threat remains. During the briefing with Huggins at Combat Outpost Apache, the feed from a unmanned aerial vehicle on a monitor was displayed in the tactical operations center. A car bomb detonated on the main street which divides the Shia Ur neighborhood and Adhamiyah. The blackened car sat in the middle of the street, and at least two homes were destroyed. Iraqis could be seen rushing to the blast location, desperately looking for survivors and carrying off the wounded. Fire trucks and ambulances pulled up to the scene. It was later reported six Iraqis were killed and 18 wounded in the attack.
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