Taking the fight to al Qaeda in the North


Map of Salahadin province and the Za’ab Triangle region. Click map to view.

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.

Bill Roggio is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Editor of FDD's Long War Journal.



  • Andrew R. says:

    It seems to me that what’s going on here is that at this point, AQI is down to a few hundred fighters who are on the move from place to place, usually terrorizing villages quickly and then moving on. If that’s the case, we should be close to a point when most of these guys can be run to ground and possibly killed/captured en masse.

  • Bill Roggio says:

    Andrew, I don’t think this is the case. There are still pockets in the Hamrin mountains, the Tigris River Valley in Salhadin, eastern Diyala, as well as cells in Baghdad, Anbar, etc. We have the upper hand but I don’t think we’ve come to that point.

  • Bill,
    Is it possible that al Qaeda, at some point, will just give up on al Qaeda or would they never do that?
    I ask because UBL’s latest message sounded almost defeatist on Iraq from al Qaeda’s point of view.

  • David M says:

    The Thunder Run has linked to this post in the – Web Reconnaissance for 11/30/2007 A short recon of what’s out there that might draw your attention, updated throughout the day…so check back often.

  • Bill Roggio says:

    Mark, I assume you mean giving up on Iraq? If so, the answer is no. Look at Chechnya. AQ Central may decide to reallocate resources but will still maintain a front in Iraq.

  • Turner says:

    It does seem important to note how they move from one hotspot to another though. Early on, when the first push occured in the far west towns near the Syrian border, Al Quada was pushed out and we saw a burst in activity in Afghanistan as well as a migration of tactics from Iraq to Afghanistan. We see that in spades right now. Afghanistan has picked up in violence since July, when the surge became effective in rooting them out. We saw a spat of suicide bombings in A-stan and, to a lessor extent, P-stan.
    My guess is that the core recruiters evacuate and the left over sadists from the Saddam era stay behind and try to deter a successful govenrment. AQI still has a presence, but like Bin Laden, the key people abandon their day-to-day jihadis as cannon-fodder for the “crusaders.”
    As the Iraqis decided whether they could put their faith in foreigners, we had a golden opportunity to chew up Al Quada face to face, and as they emerged we did so. The next opportunity will be elsewhere, the mountains betwen A-stan and P-stan perhaps, Somalia, or wherever there’s enough noise in the media, to draw in new cannon-fodder.
    Fortunately for the west, they’ve gathered themselves together like a flock of geese for now.

  • TS Alfabet says:

    Turner may have really hit on something extremely important in terms of the overall war against Islamofascism.
    Perhaps the best way to fight AQ and their ilk is to build up some type of hunter-killer forces (maybe this is why SOF got their own command) and make these forces extremely mobile, counter-insurgent expert, able to deal with indigenous allies (or forge at least temporary, local alliances), able to call down overwhelming firepower as needed where needed for as long as needed, and then able to move on to the next hot spot.
    It seems that Turner has identified something very true of AQ: they allocate resources according to what they think are either weaknesses in the West’s defenses or opportunities that they can exploit for media coverage and self-promotion. We have to possess a force that is flexible enough to go wherever AQ shows up and decimate them then and there. At times this might look like a traditional force as in A-stan or Iraq, that could be called in to obliterate a concentration of AQ forces in a particular area and then leave it to the regular army or marines to mop up. At other times, this force would look like Spec Ops, that could quietly go into tribal areas in P-stan and, again, strike directly at AQ leadership/camps/logistics and then leave, or, slip in quietly to forge mutually-beneficial ties with a tribe or two and wipe out AQ presence in that area. This force might also look like a CIA operation to kill or capture known AQ cells in other countries that either refuse to take action against AQ or lack the will or competence to do so.
    The point is that the most effective way to eliminate AQ is to follow their shifts in resources and strategy and then stamp it out before it can come to fruition. If we lack a force that can answer all these objectives, maybe it’s time that one was created?

  • TS Alfabet says:

    “SOF and US ops as a whole will have to get a lot further along in developing language and cultural skill sets and recruiting from diverse populations before your suggestion makes operational sense. ”
    Is this really the main obstacle? While I agree that Americans could do better at being proficient in other languages, (A) English is the ‘lingua franca’ of the world today without question, (B) the U.S. has been increasing its pool of linguistically-proficient forces since 2001, so there is not a complete absence; (C) we don’t need every soldier to speak Uzbek, just a few well-trained, capable leaders to serve as contact points for the natives; (D) some operations will not require any language skills beyond that needed to give strike coordinates to the air controller for the missiles; (E) much of AQ’s sstrategy now seems to be shifting toward Europe and even Latin America, where language and cultural skills are not nearly so daunting as in, say, Nawiristan.
    The idea is not to create a force out of whole cloth but to assemble one from the best of what we already have and endow them with the flexibility, firepower and, perhaps most important, operational control to apply instant and effective pressure wherever AQ starts to gather.


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