The long awaited offensive to secure Diyala province has begun. Iraqi Army and police forces, backed by the US Army, officially started Operation Omens of Prosperity today.
Iraqi sources originally said the operation would begin in early August. An indefinite curfew has been imposed on the province to restrict the movement of al Qaeda and allied terror groups.
The bulk of the offensive is likely to take place in the rural northern regions of the province, where al Qaeda still maintains strongholds. US and Iraqi special operations forces have been hunting al Qaeda 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. Also the Khanaqin district, which borders Iran, is a haven for al Qaeda, Ansar al Sunnah (which has reverted to its original name, Ansar al Islam), and other Islamist groups. The Mahdi Army also operates along the fault lines in the eastern and southern areas of the province.
Al Qaeda in Iraq has also operated female suicide bomber cells from the Baqubah region in Diyala province. In February, US special operation forces captured Karrar, a senior intelligence leader for al Qaeda in Iraq’s network in Baqubah. Karrar facilitated suicide bombing attacks in the Diyala River Valley. This network also has been responsible for female suicide attacks in Baghdad. Yesterday, four female suicide bombers killed 70 Iraqis and wounded more than 300 in attacks in Kirkuk and Baghdad.
More than 30,000 Iraqi soldiers and police are said to have massed for the Diyala offensive. 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 central and southern Iraq.
Iraqi troops move in Kirkuk
Yesterday’s suicide attack in Kirkuk, which killed 38 and wounded 178 Iraqis, has put the Iraqi military on high alert. The 15th Brigade of the 4th Iraqi Army division has shifted elements from a region west of the city of Kirkuk to the Arafa region to tamp down any potential threats.
Iraqi police also detained three members of Ansar al Islam in central Kirkuk. Ansar al Islam is a Salafist terror group that operates closely with al Qaeda in Iraq. The group is known to operate in Ninewa, Kirkuk, and the Kurdish provinces. Ansar al Islam may have been behind yesterday’s attack in Kirkuk.
Ansar al Islam is using Iran as a base of operations. On July 22, the Deputy Minister of the Kurdistan Guards Forces said Kurdish forces halted an Ansar al Islam attempt to infiltrate across the Iranian border. In February, the Kurdish media reported Ansar al Islam established cells in two Kurdish cities, with the help of the Iranian government.
Bill Roggio is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Editor of FDD’s Long War Journal.