With the wrap up of “The Anbar Campaign”, the fight against the Iraqi insurgency is changing its nature. Large scale clear & hold operations such as Sword, Iron Fist, Rivergate, and Steel Curtain are less likely to be executed, as the efforts are moving more and more towards reconstruction/civil military affairs operations and a policing solution. There are internal political considerations, and the formation of the new government and the desire to include mainstream Sunni political parties play a large role in how operations are conducted. The Iraqi government plays a greater role in the nature of operations.
This does not mean battalion-plus sized operations will no longer occur, however they are more likely to be the exception rather than the norm. More often than not, raids are now occurring at the battalion level or below. CENTCOM’s recently released tally of the results of operations in northern Iraq reflects this trend. Over 109 suspected terrorists and insurgents were arrested and four weapons caches were uncovered in a series of small scale raids and police actions. Many of the operations referenced were carried out by Iraqi units.
The Iraqi Security Forces continue to assert themselves on the battlefield and are taking control of the battlespace. In Northern Iraq, an Iraqi Battalion has assumed control of the Mahkmur region, which was under the control of the 172nd Stryker Brigade Combat Team. In Samarra, the Special Police Commandos of the famed “Lions Brigade” patrol the streets and are increasingly effective. An al-Qaeda commander was recently captured due to tips from locals; “Two days ago, at 4:30 in the morning, we had a call about a cell leader for Al Qaeda. He only came to Samarra once every three months. We arrested him, he gave us a lot of information,” said Colonel Bashar Abdullah Hussein, the brigade commander.
The insurgency and al-Qaeda have has basically lost out west towards the Syrian border. Lt. Col. Dale Alford, the battalion commander of the 3rd Battalion, 6th Marines, the unit responsible for the Al Qaim region on the Syrian Border, emails:
It is quiet out here because we have crushed the insurgents in this area. The Marines of 3/6 are doing well and we have settled down after a hard three months of fighting and are now doing the hard work of counter-insurgency warfare; patrolling, raids, meeting with local leaders, etc. Also, lots of reconstruction to do. We are involved in trying to stand up a government and police force, all while recruiting, training and working with the Iraqi Army. Tell everyone who will listen that we are winning this thing. I know you have heard this, but it will take time. The Iraqi Army is getting better everyday. Counter-insurgencies are by definition a long process.
While in Iraq, several military intelligence and operations officers have stated to me al-Qaeda’s greatest weapon out west at this juncture is cash, and their ability to spread it around to misguided youths and criminals who want to “get their jihad on” and earn what the officers call their “JAR” (Jihadi Action Ribbon) for taking up arms against the Americans. These part-timers receive hundreds of dollars to take a pot-shot at Coalition forces or plant roadside bombs.
For this reason, al-Qaeda’s leadership and command structure is targeted, particularly the financiers, weapons trainers, cell leaders and recruiters.
While in Iraq, military commanders, operations and intelligence officers repeatedly stated to me the criminalized element of the insurgency, coupled with the Ba’athist holdouts are now posing a greater threat to peace in Iraq. Strategy Page echoes this sentiment; “These guys [Sunni Arabs] know how to terrorize. The battle has now come down to Sunni Arab thugs trying to scare the police and troops out of Sunni Arab neighborhoods. The tools used are murder, kidnapping and threats of more if the security forces did not either depart, or do what the terrorists wanted.”
As stated on December 10, “ the core of the insurgency has moved back to the central environs of Iraq. Terrorist attacks continue in the capital of Baghdad. The cities and towns on the Tigris River directly north and west of Baghdad are a bastion of the Baathist insurgency. The city of Ramadi remains a battleground between the Coalition and the insurgency.”
Thus it is likely no accident Multinational Forces Iraq have merged two regions: Multinational Forces - Northwest and Multinational Forces - North Central. The region will come under the command of the 101st Airborne Division, and contain 2 brigades from the 101st, two brigades from the 3rd Infantry Division (1st and 3rd Brigade Combat Teams) and the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment and the 172nd Stryker Brigade Combat Team. The 2nd and 3rd Divisions of the Iraqi Army are also present, along with police forces.
This merge of commands and regions will give the 101st greater flexibility in the region, and allow for better command and control of military and reconstruction efforts. The recent airstrike in Hawaji that killed ten insurgents while planting roadside bombs is indicative of the fight in the region northwest of Baghdad. A raid immediately followed the airstrike; “U.S. soldiers later raided the village and found assault rifles, a machine gun and bomb-making equipment in houses near the site of the air strike. They said they also found a bomb by the side of the road where the men were first spotted.”
The targeted operations continue in Ramadi. The latest series of raids have netted five insurgent leaders on the most wanted list. Major General Huck, the commanding general of the 2nd Marine Division whose area of operations includes Ramadi, has indicated to me the preference was to chip away at the insurgency in Ramadi, but would not rule out a full scale assault, and has repeatedly made this clear to the leaders of the city. If there is one place the Coalition is likely to go on a major offensive, it is Ramadi.
The insurgency evolves, and the Coalition and Iraqi forces adapt.