As al Qaeda in Iraq attempts to re-establish its networks in the Northern provinces, the Iraqi military and Multinational Forces Iraq have been shaping the battlefield in the north for a showdown with the terror group. Iraqi and US forces received a big boost the past week when a significant number of Iraqis formed a Concerned Local Citizens group in the region. Meanwhile, the Islamic Army of Iraq in Mosul has vowed to dig in and fight the Coalition.
Iraqi and US forces have been focusing on the northern region — delineated by the provinces of Ninewa, Tamin, Salahadin, and Diyala — since major counterinsurgency operations began this summer. Operation Lightning Hammer II was launched Mosul, Tal Afar, and in the Za’ab Triangle region in September as a corps-sized operation, with over 26,000 troops committed to the fight. The Za’ab region, roughly outlined by the intersections of northern Salahadin, southwestern Tamin, and southeastern Ninewa, contains some of the toughest cities in Iraq, including Baiji and Hawija.
On November 5, US and Iraqi forces launched Operation Iron Hammer, a division-sized operation, in the city and regions surrounding Kirkuk. Kirkuk sits just northeast of the Za’ab Triangle region. Iron Hammer consisted of elements from four Iraqi Army Divisions and three US brigades. Over 200 insurgent suspects were captured, including three high-value al Qaeda leaders. A large amount of explosives and weapons caches were also found.
Iron Hammer was followed by Operation Raging Eagle, another division-sized operation that also focused on Kirkuk and the surrounding regions. Over fifty al Qaeda operatives were captured during the operation.
In the north, US and Iraqi forces look to be forcing the battle away from the major cities of Mosul and Kirkuk, as well as away from Kirkuk’s vital oilfields. “They want to go north into Kirkuk and wreak havoc there, and that’s exactly what we’re trying to avoid,” said Army Major General Mark Hertling, the top US commander in northern Iraq, in an interview with the Associated Press. Over 200 al Qaeda in Iraq fighters are believed to have taken shelter in the towns and villages in the Hawija region.
As the fight looks to be shaping up in the Za’ab Triangle region, Iraqi and US forces received a major break by receiving reinforcements from Iraqis in the region. On November 28, the Associated Press reported over 6,000 Iraqis joined the Concerned Local Citizens movement in the Hawija region. The Concerned Local Citizens are typically tribal groups and former insurgents who form local auxiliary police units to fight al Qaeda in Iraq and protect their local communities.
The number of 6,000 Concerned Local Citizens in Hawija, however, may be inaccurate. In response to an inquiry from the The Long War Journal to Multinational Forces Iraq, Colonel Don Bacon stated that the actual number in the Hawija region is 2,500, with the possibility that 6,000 was the number of recruits pledged by tribal leaders.
The provinces of Ninewa, Tamin, Salahadin, and Diyala have seen a spike in participation in the Concerned Local Citizens movement. Tamin now has over 8,000 Concerned Local Citizen, Salahadin 4,000, and Diyala 10,000, according to data obtained by The Long War Journal. Ninewa has only 1,500 participants, but “there is a large Iraqi Army and Police presence which may mitigate against a large CLC [Concerned Local Citizens] program in this province,” according to a source in Multinational Forces Iraq who wishes to remain anonymous.
Iraqi and Coalition efforts to move the fighting from the major cities may be difficult to achieve. The Islamic Army in Iraq in Mosul has vowed to continue the fight in the northern city. Upset that some of its groups have broken with the insurgency and are supporting the government in Concerned Local Citizens movements, the Mosul branch has formed al Fatih al Mubeen. Elements of the Islamic Army in Iraq have sided with al Qaeda and joined its Islamic State of Iraq.
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