Al Qaeda in Iraq safe havens before the surge up until November 2007. Map from The Institute for the Study of War. Click to view.
With al Qaeda in Iraq’s bases of operations dismantled in the central Baghdad regions, Diyala province has emerged as the primary battleground between Iraqi and Coalition forces and the terror group. As the concurrent combat operations against al Qaeda in Baghdad and the Belts regions peaked during the summer and fall, al Qaeda in Iraq attempted to re-establish its bases in the northern provinces of Salahadin, Ninewa, Tamin, and Diyala. In the region northeast of Miqdadiyah, al Qaeda in Iraq has gains some traction.
Al Qaeda’s attempts to reform in Ninewa have largely been blunted as the group is short of funds and its leadership fractured, Major General Mark Hertling, the commander of Multinational Division North said in a recent interview with Voices of Iraq. “Al Qaeda suffered fund shortage and posed no big danger in Ninewa after [the] killing and arresting a number of its financiers [by US and Iraqi forces],” Hertling said. “The armed groups activating in the provinces worked without funds, after their field financiers escaped with money, causing a splinter in the organization.”
US and Iraqi security forces launched Operation Iron Reaper in the north on Dec. 3 in an effort to keep al Qaeda in Iraq from reestablishing its command and control and bases of operation in the region. The rapid expansion of Concerned Local Citizen groups in Ninewa, Salahadin, and Tamin provinces has also helped keep al Qaeda in Iraq from fully regrouping in the North.
But Diyala province has emerged as one of the most dangerous regions in Iraq, Rear Admiral Gregory Smith, the director of communications for Multinational Forces Iraq said today in a press briefing in Baghdad. Al Qaeda in Iraq has “found a haven in Diyala,” Smith noted. The Concerned Local Citizen and Awakening movements, the tribal groups and former insurgents that have banded together to fight al Qaeda in Iraq, will be a primary force against al Qaeda in Iraq in Diyala province.
Miqdadiyah is center of the storm
The Miqdadiyah and Khanaqin districts in the eastern portion of Diyala province have emerged as al Qaeda in Iraq’s main staging point, according to attack data, Iraqi and Coalition operations, as well as a map released by Multinational Forces Iraq in November. The Miqdadiyah district includes Baqubah, the provincial capital.
The map released by Multinational Forces Iraq in November, which shows how al Qaeda-controlled territory in central Iraq declined during the course of the surge, clearly shows that al Qaeda has only expanded its territory in one region: Diyala province. Al Qaeda in Iraq has expanded its influence around the lake in Khanaqin district, just northeast of Miqdadiyah and Baqubah. From these regions, Al Qaeda also controls some small pockets in rural areas southeast and northwest of the lake.
Al Qaeda in Iraq has staged suicide car bomb attacks, established false checkpoints, and attacked Concerned Local Citizen groups and Diyala’s Awakening movement from these bases. Three high-profile attacks have occurred in Miqdadiyah during December. Terrorists posing as Iraqi soldiers kidnapped 14 civilians at a fake checkpoint near the city on Dec. 24.
On Dec. 7, a female suicide bomber killed 16 and wounded 27 when she detonated her vest “amidst a gathering of civilians in central Miqdadiyah district” in Diyala province. “A female suicide bomber attacked the popular committees [Concerned Local Citizens] headquarters in al-Mualimeen neighborhood,” Voices of Iraq reported. That same day, a suicide car bomber “detonated a car crammed with explosives this afternoon targeting a joint checkpoint of the Iraqi army and the Miqdadiyah popular committees.” Seven Iraqi soldiers and three police volunteers were killed in the attack; eight were wounded.
Iraqi and Coalition forces conducted numerous operations and raids in the region northeast of Miqdadiyah, indicating the region is a hotspot. The largest such operation resulted in 24 al Qaeda fighters killed and 37 detained. Nine weapons caches, along with al Qaeda medical facilities and a torture house were discovered during the operations. Three days later, in a follow-up operation, Coalition forces conducted a sweeping operation in the same region. Twelve al Qaeda fighters were killed and 37 captured between Dec. 22 and 25.
Coalition forces also conducted a raid inside Miqdadiyah on Dec. 23. A Coalition special forces team targeted an al Qaeda operative in charge of “terrorist media and propaganda operations and a direct associate of senior leadership in the network.” Five suspects were detained and the terror complex was destroyed. Another special forces raid north of Miqdadiyah resulted in four al Qaeda fighters killed and the discovery of an al Qaeda facility. Multinational Forces Iraq lost a MQ-1 Predator Unmanned Aerial Vehicle during an operation in the region on Dec. 17.
Baqubah in the crosshairs
Al Qaeda in Iraq has used its bases in the Miqdadiyah and Khanaqin districts to strike at targets not only in Baqubah but also in the surrounding areas. The main focus of al Qaeda’s attacks has been the Sunni and Shia groups fighting against al Qaeda and the Iraqi security forces. The city is under Iraqi and US control, but al Qaeda is seeking to undermine the local security forces that have been established to fight the terror group.
On Dec. 26, al Qaeda killed three members of the 1920s Revolution Brigades in a suicide bomb attack on a headquarters in Baqubah. The 1920s Revolution Brigades fought against al Qaeda under the guise of the Baqubah Guardians and have integrated into the Diyala Awakening Council. Two members of the Awakening were killed while conducting a joint patrol on Dec. 21, while a suicide bomber killed 10 and wounded 18 in an attack on an Awakening recruitment center on Dec. 20. An officer of the Awakening in Baqubah was killed and four soldiers wounded in an attack on a patrol in the city on Dec. 15.
Al Qaeda has also attempted to intimidate the local population by conducting attacks in markets and cafes. There were three mass-casualty bombings in the city since Nov. 27. An al Qaeda suicide bombing at a cafe in Baqubah killed 12 and wounded 20 on Dec. 19. Five civilians were killed and 12 others wounded in a car bomb blast that ripped through central Baqubah on Dec. 5. Six people, including three policemen, were killed and seven others wounded when a suicide bomber wearing an explosive belt packed with ball bearings attacked the Diyala police headquarters in central Baqubah on Nov. 27.
The Khalis region, which is northwest of Baqubah and due east of Miqdadiyah, has been hardest hit by al Qaeda violence outside of the provincial capital. Al Qaeda is said to control the town of Safit and is battling the neighboring town of Dojama. Iraqi tribesmen, backed by police, killed five al Qaeda fighters in Safit on Dec. 23. A week earlier, a major battle between al Qaeda and the tribes was reported; 22 al Qaeda and 17 tribesmen were said to have been killed. Iraqi soldiers and police captured 25 al Qaeda fighters in Khalis on Dec. 6, while 14 Iraqis were kidnapped at a fake checkpoint on Dec. 24.
The Balad Ruz region east of Baqubah has also seen an uptick in fighting. Al Qaeda operatives kidnapped 22 Iraqis at a fake checkpoint between Kanaan and Balad Ruz on Dec. 27. Four civilians were killed and 24 wounded in an IED attack at a market in Balad Ruz on Dec. 17, while a senior al Qaeda commander in Diyala province was captured in the city on Dec. 25. Further east in Mandali, police captured 10 al Qaeda operatives. Al Qaeda in Iraq carried out brutal attacks against the villages in the Mandali region in the spring of 2007.
Fighting al Qaeda in Diyala province
The surge in Iraqi security forces and the rise of the Concerned Local Citizens and Awakening movements are considered to be the backbone of the fight against al Qaeda in Iraq in Diyala province. “AQI [al Qaeda in Iraq] remains a threat throughout Iraq,” said Smith. “Future operations will continue to hunt down their cells and stop their abilities to hurt civilians. CLCs [Concerned Local Citizen] will be involved with securing the Diyala area.”
With a drawdown of US forces imminent this spring, national and local Iraqi security forces will be forced to shoulder a larger burden of the fight against al Qaeda in Iraq in Diyala province. US forces will be forced at some point, due to resources, to reduce the number of brigades in Iraq. The surge added five extra brigades to Iraq, to increase the number to 20 in country, while an additional combat brigade was deployed to Afghanistan. The US military does not have the ability to support these high deployment numbers indefinitely. Meanwhile, with the upcoming presidential primaries and then election, political pressure to drawn down US forces will increase.
Al Qaeda in Iraq is targeting the Awakening movements and the Concerned Local Citizens in an attempt to break these organizations before they can grow strong roots in their local areas. Osama bin Laden, in his latest tape, stated Sunnis must reject these movements. These Sunnis “have betrayed the nation and brought disgrace and shame to their people,” bin Laden stated. “They will suffer in life and in the afterlife.”
Al Qaeda in Iraq, via its front group the Islamic State of Iraq, pressed for a campaign against the Sunnis working with US forces and the Iraqi government. Al Qaeda has conducted several high-profile attacks against the Awakening but has been unable to shatter the movement. A similar campaign by al Qaeda against the Anbar Awakening failed after al Qaeda launched a brutal campaign in the province.