Iraqi security forces are massing more than 30,000 soldiers and police for an upcoming operation against al Qaeda and the Mahdi Army in the eastern province of Diyala, according to police and military officials.
The operation, which was expected to be launched this week, has been scheduled to kick off on August 1, an anonymous senior Iraqi military officer told AFP. “The operation is aimed at cleansing the region of insurgents, al Qaeda and militias who are still there,” the officer said.
Like other offensives against al Qaeda and the Mahdi Army, the Diyala operation will be planned and led by the Iraqi military. “It will be an operation led by the Iraqi army,” an anonymous US military officer told AFP. “The US army will probably only watch. … If they need help, we’ll help them. If not, we will not do anything.”
The US currently has a brigade based in Diyala. The 3rd Squadron, 2nd Stryker Cavalry Regiment is operating in northeastern Diyala and has been conducting operations against al Qaeda strongholds along the Iranian border.
The Iraqi command has shown the ability to move and mass troops for large-scale operations this year. While this is not confirmed, elements from the 1st Iraqi Army Division — redesignated the 1st Quick Reaction Force — along with the 9th Iraqi Army Division (Mechanized), and several Emergency Response Brigades will likely join the 5th Iraqi Army Division based in Diyala. The 1st, 9th, and the Emergency Response Brigades have been used to conduct operations against the Mahdi Army in Baghdad and throughout the South.
Iraqi and US forces have conducted several operations in Diyala province since the surge was announced in January 2007. Last summer and fall, operations focused on clearing Baqubah, the Diyala River Valley north of Baqubah, and surrounding districts of the influence of al Qaeda and Mahdi Army. In January 2008, an operation was launched in the Miqdadiyah region, where al Qaeda was building a safe haven.
Al Qaeda still maintains a stronghold in the Hamrin Mountains, which span Diyala, Salahadin, and Tamin provinces. This area is a major fallback position for al Qaeda in Iraq and allied insurgent groups. The Miqdadiyah region was reported to be an al Qaeda stronghold earlier this year. The Mahdi Army operates along the fault lines in the eastern and southern areas of the province.
More Iraqis are currently being killed in Diyala province per day per capita than in any other province in Iraq, according to numbers compiled by Chris Radin of The Long War Journal. Diyala has 2.62 Iraqis killed per day per million inhabitants, compared to Ninewa (1.4) and Baghdad (0.6), the second and third most violent provinces.
Operations in Babil and Wasit provinces loom
Iraqi forces are also preparing for a security operation in Babil province, just south of Baghdad. An operation may also take place in Wasit province as the Diyala security operation take place.
In Babil, a curfew has been imposed in the provincial capital of Hillah as Iraqi security forces, backed by US troops, launched a search operation. The operation is taking place in northern Babil, an anonymous source told Voices of Iraq.
The operation is taking place where elements from the newly formed 17th Iraqi Army Division are based. This operation is likely smaller in scope than the planned Diyala offensive or prior operations in Basrah, Sadr City, Maysan, and Mosul.
The Babil operation is likely a precursor to an operation in Wasit province, which may be launched in conjunction with the Diyala offensive. Wasit sits on the eastern border of Babil and the southern border of Diyala.
Wasit is the only central-southern province that has not been a focus of major combat operations. The Iraqi military started its rolling offensive in Basrah in March, and then proceeded to tackle the provinces of Dhi Qhar, Qadisiyah, Maysan, and now Babil. All of these provinces are major areas of operations for the Iranian-backed Shia terror groups.
Bill Roggio is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Editor of FDD’s Long War Journal.