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December 31, 2005

The Future Fight in Iraq

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.

December 30, 2005

Counterterrorism Efforts in Arabia

An often overlooked theater in the war against al-Qaeda’s global network is right in the heart of the Middle East on the Arabian Peninsula. Saudi Arabia is a troubled ally in the War on Terror, as their internal politics and government support of the radical Wahabi strain of Islam often conflicts with fighting al-Qaeda’s support mechanisms within the country. However their efforts killing or capturing al-Qaeda members in the kingdom cannot be questioned.

This week, Saudi security forces killed two senior members of al-Qaeda in Saudi Arabia, Abdel-Rahman al-Mutab and Mohammed al-Suwailmi. They were the number four and seven on the Saudi’s latest most wanted list. Security Watchtower’s C.S. Scott keeps a running graphic of the Saudi’s efforts against al-Qaeda, and notes “All told, 55 of the 74 most wanted have been killed or captured, including 44 of the top 45.”

Counterterrorism expert Evan Kohlmann notes Mohammed al-Suwailmi recently praised Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, al-Qaeda’s commander in Iraq, and actually received assistance from Zarqawi. In what Mr. Kohlmann describes as “a defiant audio recording on the Internet” al-Suwailmi stated, “The mujahideen will never forget the group of the faithful who stood beside them and supported them… Among those is my mujahid brother Abu Musab al-Zarqawi—may Allah protect him and use him to spread frustration amongst his enemies. [Abu Musab] did not hesitate even for a second to support and assist the mujahideen in [Saudi Arabia]. I ask Allah to grant victory upon him and his brothers in Mesopotamia and to grant honor and dignity upon Islam.”

In Kuwait, six terrorists of the al-Qaeda linked “Peninsula Lions” were sentenced to death, and thirty-one were given jail terms for deadly attacks in the country. The nationalities of those sentenced highlights the global nature of al-Qaeda; “They include 25 Kuwaitis, seven stateless Arabs, two Jordanians, a Saudi, an Australian and a Somali.”

An attempted prison break in Iraq which included “some of the most violent of Iraq’s insurgents” also reinforces the global nature of the jihad, as “A Russian, a Tunisian and a Saudi were involved” in the uprising.

The fight against al-Qaeda’s global network of jihad will not be won by U.S. efforts alone. The Arabian Peninsula is a central recruiting ground for al-Qaeda’s foot soldiers and leaders. Less than fully committed allies, such as Saudi Arabia, must continue to target the networks of al-Qaeda, but also need to push further with political reforms and clamp down on the inciteful rhetoric which emanates from its mosques and schools.

Enter al-Qaeda

There is fast-paced activity in all directions surrounding Israel, as conflict brews in cauldrons on the northern, eastern and southern fronts. Potentially, the most concerning going forward comes from the northern front with developments in the recent rocket attacks launched on Israeli towns from across the Lebanese border.

Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s al-Qaeda in Iraq has announced that they are the ones who executed the Wednesday katyusha rocket attacks on the Israeli towns in a statement posted on a jihahdi website that has been used in the past for al-Zarqawi statements. Israel initially blamed Hezbollah for the eastern-most attacks and the Damascus-headquartered PFLP-GC (Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine – General Command) for the western coastal attacks.

While the al-Qaeda claim is unconfirmed, it is indeed possible that Zarqawi has operatives in Lebanon that executed the attacks. From a strategic perspective, whether they did or not pales in comparison to the clear statement of intent of al-Qaeda going forward to directly engage Israel. This intent should not be lost or discounted.

Within this context, it should also be noted that, while Hezbollah may have denied that it launched the attacks, nothing happens in southern Lebanon without their foreknowledge and precious little occurs without their tacit approval. To a much lesser degree, the same could be said of the smaller areas where the PFLP operates. If al-Qaeda in Iraq indeed carried out the attacks, both groups are still complicit.

Taking heed to Israel’s demands that the Lebanese government take control and responsibility of their southern territory, the Lebanese Army found two katyusha rockets in a southern Lebanon grove prepared for fire on Israel and dismantled them. Though not entirely clear from the article, ‘south of Beirut’ likely indicates that it is from the coastal region near where the IDF attacked the PFLP tunnel systems and where the Tuesday barrage on the western Israeli towns also originated. This is a very positive step by Lebanon, though only a beginning. It should be noted that this did not occur in Hezbollah-controlled areas, where the government has essentially ceded security to Hezbollah rather than face a bloody internal confrontation to assert control.

To the east in the West Bank, a suicide bomber attack was thwarted as a Palestinian Islamic Jihad terrorist sought to cross into Israel from the West Bank town of Tulkarem. Israeli intelligence got wind of the coming attack and set up impromptu roadblocks around the town. The bomber was travelling by taxi. When the taxi was stopped and the passengers ordered out of the cab, he detonated his explosive vest, killing the two other Palestinians in the cab, likely accomplices, and the IDF soldier attempting to get him out of the vehicle. After the suicide bombing attempt that failed to reach Israel, IDF forces conducted nearby raids and arrested 10 PIJ terrorists, though Israel said the arrests were not related to this bombing.

Also in the West Bank, Israel dismantled newly constructed Israeli outposts, keeping with their commitment to the ‘Road Map’ not to establish new settlements. The Israeli settlers who built them say they will rebuild them. Of course, they will be destroyed again in the cycle. The key Palestinian commitment agreed to in the ‘Road Map’, disarming terrorist groups within it, has yet to see constructive progress.

To the south in Gaza, Palestinian police stormed the Rafah border crossing in apparent protest over the killing of one of their officers in the ongoing lawlessness in Gaza.

Two things in this incident are striking. First, that al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades was part of the protest, lending armed assistance to the police officers. Members of Al-Aqsa are themselves responsible for the storming of buildings throughout Gaza in recent weeks, active participants in the lawlessness they now seem to be decrying. They have demanded that Abbas, now on tour along the Persian Gulf, fire key security officials. This is akin to a union sitting down on the job, only then to go on official strike complaining of lack of productivity. Second, it is notable that the EU border observers not only fled the scene, but fled to Israel for protection (also astutely noted here). The EU rarely has anything positive to say of Israel, but it appears they know who to seek for cover when violence erupts. They are expected to return to man the crossing points again today.

Israel is seeing movement on all fronts at an increasing clip. And while they may have support from the United States, they literally stand alone in defense of their nation, as they generally have.

Especially considering the coming (or, as claimed, current) active participation of al-Qaeda, the Arab-Israeli conflict may soon be on the verge of erupting.

December 29, 2005

From Syria with Love?

At least seven katyusha rockets and multiple mortars were fired into three towns in Israel from Lebanon in the Wednesday overnight. One town in the far northeastern corner of Israel, Kiryat Shmona, was believed to have been targeted by Hezbollah, while the northwestern town of Shlomi was believed to have been targeted by the PFLP (Palestinian Front for the Liberation of Palestine). Just a few miles west of Shlomi, explosions were also heard in the coastal city of Nahariya. Meanwhile, to the south in Gaza, the IDF began enforcing the newly mapped out ‘no-go zone’ in northern Gaza Strip after dropping leaflets warning Palestinians of the precise areas forbidden.

The Israeli Army quickly blamed Hezbollah for the northeastern rocket attack where two civilians were treated after two rockets struck an apartment building shortly before midnight. In the west along the Mediterranean, Israel identified the PFLP as the attackers and carried out airstrikes on their fortified tunnel system dug into the mountains overlooking the sea near the southern Lebanon town of Naameh, just five miles south of Beirut.

Israel quickly demanded that Lebanon take both responsibility for and control of what happens within its own borders with regards to terror attacks from southern Lebanon. According to Israeli General Udi Adam, “The main message that we passed, and we are trying to give, is that the Lebanese government must take responsibility for what happens in its territory,” General Adam told The Associated Press. “If Kiryat Shmona residents don’t sleep quietly, then the residents of Beirut won’t sleep quietly.”

Though not warmly, the message seems to have been received as Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Saniora condemned the rocket attacks. He also condemned the Israeli response, iterating that both actions were aimed at destabilizing Lebanon. While there is certainly no love lost between Israel and Lebanon, regardless of the common Syrian villain as largely seen by both (Saniora himself being anti-Syria), it should be recognized that Israel has little if anything to gain from any destabilization of Lebanon. The question is, ‘Who does?’

The synchronized attacks on separate parts of Israel indicates not only a larger coordinated attack, but an attack that may in fact be coordinated between two unrelated [relative term] terrorist organizations (Hezbollah is an Islamist Shi’ite terrorist group, while the PFLP (Palestinian Front for the Liberation of Palestine) is a non-Islamist secular leftist terrorist organization.) If the two groups are both responsible for portions of a coordinated attack, it would logical to reason a common entity behind both are using them to escalate tensions with Israel on the Israeli-Lebanese border.

It could be argued that, with the ongoing negotiations with the EU and the IAEA, Iran would stand to benefit from a regional distraction. Iran has strong influence with and ties to (if not much control over) Hezbollah. However, Syria also has strong connections with Hezbollah and supports them financially and materially as well.

But Syria, with the ongoing UN investigation into the murder of Rafik Hariri and the potential expansion of that investigation to include recent assassinations of anti-Syrain lebanese figures, stands to realize much more substantial and direct gains from an Israeli-Lebanese border conflict. Consider also that, borrowing a page from the Iranian playbook of diplomatic stalling, Syria now wants meetings to change the rules of ‘cooperation’ in the probe. Syria is desperate to find a means to crawl out from under the weight of the investigation. Further supporting the line of thinking that Syria may be behind the coordinated attacks is the unique amount of support the Syrian regime extends to the PFLP in Lebanon.

Not unlike Iran, Syria has demonstrated a certain iron will to fight the Israelis right down to the last Lebanese. This may be merely another manifestation of that strategy, borne more of necessity than opportunity.

December 28, 2005

Iran on Nuclear Talks: "Slower, please."

With the international community openly discussing potential Russian uranium enrichment as an alternative to any indigenous Iranian process long before anything official was presented to Iran by the Russians, that formality has now passed and the Iranian response has been predictably mixed thus far. Iran’s initial response through its Fars News Agency was one of open indifference, with an unnamed official stating that they had merely received a one page letter with no details and, therefor, could not issue any opinion without details. But that was rapidly followed by a more widely publicized response from the deputy head of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council and lead nuclear negotiator, Javad Vaidi, who said that Iran would review the Russian proposal seriously and enthusiastically. When the Russian plan was divulged in greater detail, its principal proposal was to set up a joint Russian-Iranian company operating on Russian soil and, thus, ultimately under Russian physical control.

From the elected Majlis, the head of the Majlis national security and foreign relations committee, Ala’eddin Borujerdi, said that Moscow’s uranium enrichment proposal was unacceptable and that Iran will not aquiesce to Iranian facilities on Russian soil. Counter that with the statement from the Iranian Foreign Ministry that appears to suggest potential common ground by saying, “The earlier Russian offer to Iran to establish a joint Russian-Iranian uranium enrichment venture in Russia remains valid.”

On the American front, the US State Department levied sanctions against six Chinese companies, two Indian companies and an Austrian firm for aiding Iran’s various weapons programs, potentially signaling a tougher stance on both Iran and China to be taken by the United States. But the sanctions’ bark is greater than their bite, as it only applies to trade with the US, not a direct prevention mechanism to derail dangerous deals with Iran or any other country. At least one of the Chinese companies already has US sanctions on it. Some Europeans question the sanctions and are complaining that they are counter-productive to the ongoing negotiation process. What they fail to realize is that the negotiations will be going nowhere fast, which is the Iranian plan.

To underscore this, the latest self-contradictory reactions to the Russian plan should be viewed within the context of statements that followed last week’s non-event, the reuniting of the EU3 and Iran at the negotiating table in Vienna. After the meetings broke, the Europeans stated that nothing was accomplished, nothing was learned, and nothing eventful happened. Yet, conversely, the Iranians said that they saw great promise in the meetings and that a compromise was certainly in sight. This fits the contradictory pattern that has existed since talks first began.

Iran has been very careful thus far not to have previously outright rejected the forthcoming Russian proposal now at hand for fear of inspiring immediate referral to the UN Security Council. Now that the proposal is formally here, the varied responses from the different corners of the Iranian regime represent no real game plan or end game that Iran sees from the ‘talks about talks’. Considering all of this, the Iranian responses above can and should be seen as little more than disingenuous forestalling, biding for more time for internal nuclear development without intrusion and perpetual stalling of any UN Security Council confrontation and possible sanctions. All they need and want is more time.

For Iran, it’s simply, “Slower, please.”

Post Election Developments

The results of Iraq’s first fully independent parliamentary election are still in question. Robert Mayer is concerned about the discord over the election results. But Omar at Iraq the Model sees hope, as there are negotiations among the leaders of the major parties. The summit between “the leaders of the four major lists (Allawi, Adnan al-Dulaimi, al-Hakeem and Barzani as well as president Talabani)” is directed at creating an inclusive government that represents the makeup of the Iraqi populace. Negotiations and compromise are cornerstones to a successful democracy, and we saw this process successfully play out in the past with an agreement struck on the handling of the constitution.

As the Iraqi political parties work to address the political outcome of the election, U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld has announced a drawdown of U.S. forces in Iraq. Two brigades, the 1st Brigade, 1st Infantry Division, and the 2nd Brigade, 1st Armored Division, totaling over 7,000 troops will not be deployed to Iraq. The 1/1 ID was scheduled to go to Balad in central Iraq, while the 2/1 AD was slated to deploy to Eastern Diyala Province. Poland, which had planned on a complete withdrawal of troops over the next several weeks, has reversed its decision and will keep a large percentage of its forces in Iraq through 2006.

Provinces of IraqThe U.S. drawdown is subject to change, and is attributed to the increasing proficiency of the Iraqi Security Forces and their ability to operate independently and take ownership of their own battlespace. One example is the 8th Iraqi Army Division in the city of Diwaniyah in al-Qadissiya province, south of Baghdad. Six battalions and two brigades of the 8th Iraqi Army Division have completed certification; “This means the division will now have the ability to plan and conduct the operations with limited support of Coalition Forces,” according to the CENTCOM press release.

The insurgency has not abated despite the popularity and participation of the recent election. Coalition and Iraqi forces continue to conduct patrols and small scale operations in an attempt to reduce the effectiveness and lethality of the insurgency.

In Mosul, Coalition forces arrested “an Ansar al-Sunna of Mosul Media Emir and Administrator.” Ansar al-Sunna is a jihadi terrorist organization and an ally of al-Qaeda in Iraq. Near Tikrit, a roadside bomb planter is killed and another is wounded when their bomb detonated during emplacement. Near Kirkuk, eight Iraqi soldiers were killed and seventeen wounded after insurgents attacked their checkpoint.

Near Bayji, a resident provided a tip that uncovered what Capt. Matt Bartlett, commander of Company B, 1st Battalion, 187th Infantry Regiment described as “basically an ammo supply point for the enemy… Any attack they wanted to do, whether an IED or small-arms, they could get what they needed here.” The find included “1,600 rockets and missiles, 283 large artillery shells, 27 anti-tank mines and 80 assault weapons were pulled from the ground along with nearly a ton of bulk explosives.” The 1/187 also conducted a raid in Muslakhah, which netted another large cache as well as suspected insurgents.

In southern Baghdad and northern Babil province, nine insurgents and were killed and sixteen suspects detained. In northeast Baghdad, a weapons cache is uncovered, which included “27 rocket-propelled grenade rounds, three 82 mm mortar rounds, 13 armor-piercing rocket-propelled grenade launchers, 28 rocket-propelled propellant chargers, 10,000 rounds of AK-47 ammunition, and 400 4.5 mm rounds.” In eastern Baghdad, a local tip uncovered a rocket launcher factory.

The much touted “rise in post election violence” is merely a resumption of the insurgency, parts of which conducted a cease fire for the election, and other parts of which had their operations interrupted by the tough security restrictions in place during the election.

December 27, 2005

Israel Declares "No Man's Land" Along Gaza Border

While Ariel Sharon awaits surgery to repair the small hole in his heart that caused his small stroke last week, he has responded to the barrage of rocket attacks from northern Gaza Strip by declaring the outer edges of the Gaza Strip off-limits to Palestinians and essentially forewarned free-fire zones.

The off-limits area will be 1 ½ miles deep and run along the northern and eastern edges of Gaza, defense officials said. Gaza is about 25 miles long and six miles wide. The officials said the banned areas are uninhabited, although they include Palestinian farmland.

The IDF has been shelling open fields in these areas since the rocket attacks began in earnest weeks ago. While the entire swath has been declared ‘hazardous to your health’ by Sharon, expect to see Israeli defense forces concentrate both attention and efforts on the northwest corner of Gaza, where attacks inching closer to the Israeli coastal city of Ashqelon have been launched, and the northeast corner of Gaza, where rocket attacks on the areas surrounding Sderot have originated. The 1.5 mile buffer is meant to push accessible Qassam rocket launch points back far enough to make the targets out of range.

After poor flying weather minimized operations early on after the announcement, a break in the weather opened a window of opportunity that the IDF seized. Israeli air assets struck two buildings used by al-Aqsa Martyr’s Brigades that an Israeli army spokeman said were used both in planning and execution of Qassam rocket attacks on Israeli civilians.

Helicopter gunships and fighter jets struck at least nine targets, cutting off electricity to a town in northern Gaza and cutting deep craters in half a dozen roads. Warplanes rocked Gaza City with two sonic booms at around dawn.

The Israeli army said it targeted two offices in Gaza used by the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, an armed group in President Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah faction, to plan attacks, and a bridge used to reach an area to fire rockets at Israel.

The combined operations struck open fields, the two buildings mentioned and roads. The IDF dropped heavy ordnance on roads used to transport Qassam rockets and their operators to past launch points, leaving large craters to hamper the effectiveness of Qassam operations.

In southern Gaza at the EU-monitored Rafah Crossing into Egypt, Popular Resistance Committees(PRC) leader, Jamal Abu Samhadana, posted a statement complaining that senior commanders from PRC-member organizations Hamas and PIJ were barred from crossing and set a deadline for officials to meet or attacks on the crossing will begin.

A PRC spokesman threatened the group’s fighters would blast a path through the concrete barricades along the Gaza-Egypt border if the ban were not rescinded by the Muslim feast of Eid al-Adha on January 10…

…The PRC’s protest was echoed by Palestinian militant groups Hamas and Islamic Jihad, each of which said one of its field commanders had been barred from crossing Rafah.

In the West Bank, Israel announced that it plans to build more homes within Israeli West bank settlements. The headline to the story reads that Israel will “expand” the settlements, but this is a poor choice of terminology, as there will be no territorial gains, but merely building within the confines of established settlements. While new construction within the settlements is banned by the 2003 ‘Road Map to Peace” agreement, Israel likely views this as a statement that the Palestinian Authority has not lived up to their end of the bargain by not disarming terrorist groups in the Palestinian Territories, also called for in the ‘Road map’, signed by both Israel and the PA.

Meanwhile, an election court has granted a six-hour window as an extension to candidate registration which would allow Fatah to re-unify and regroup, as it has determined to do, in order to stave off electoral defeat at the hands of Hamas, who has already made gains in local elections. Exactly when that six-hour window will occur was not stated. While Fatah seeks to regroup, Israel has decided that disallowing an East Jerusalem Palestinian vote was a bad idea, and has apparently changed its stance and may now allow the vote to take place, regardless of heavy Hamas participation.

With the threats from Palestinian groups of bombing the newly opened Rafah Crossing to the continued barrages of Qassam rockets into Israeli towns, the Palestinian Authority is demonstrating a fair degree of either ineptitude toward reeling in the terrorists on its own soil or complicity with them. Regardless of which view one holds in that aspect, it should be universally held that the state of affairs in Gaza since the Israeli pullout after 38 years of occupation has not improved, but only gotten worse. This fact gives momentum to Likud candidate Benyamin Netanyahu heading into Israeli elections, though certainly not nearly enough to overcome Sharon, health questions or none.

December 22, 2005

PFLP's Nablus Commander Killed in Raid

Three Palestinians were killed in Nablus trying to escape capture after a four storey building was sealed off by the IDF. One of the dead was the Nablus commander of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP). The PFLP is the same terrorist group that earlier in the week kidnapped and later released an Australian in the Gaza strip. The other two terrorists killed were members of al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades.

In response to the Israeli raid, the Palestinian Islamic Jihad and al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades launched a rocket attack from Gaza into Israel. Five IDF soldiers were lightly wounded by the Qassam rocket explosions. One Palestinian was later killed in Gaza as Israel responded with artillery bombardment of the Qassam launch point.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s office said that Israel ‘has been left no other choice’ but to find a harsher response to rocket attacks from Gaza, signaling the possible increased use of precision airstrikes or, potentially, even a ground incursion into areas of the Gaza Strip. Another possibility being publicly considered is cutting the power to Gaza in the event of a pre-election surge of violence.

Since Israel has uprooted Israeli settlers, fully withdrawn from Gaza and handed it over to the Palestinians, the Palestinians have done little internally to use their new possession productively for anything beyond a launch pad for more attacks. This intent was evidenced immediately following the Israeli turn-over of Gaza, when al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades shot and killed a Romanian construction worker in the northern West bank town of Yabed and claimed the killing by stating plainly:

“We do not agree with the ceasefire,” a group of militiamen from the West Bank town of Jenin said in a statement. “This is our first action. This is the beginning.”

Many feared that the handover of Gaza would lead to no peace between Israel and the Palestinian terrorist groups perennially aligned against it. As ‘the beginning’ has progressed into consistently escalating violence in and from Gaza, those fears appear to have been well founded. In Gaza, the main highway running north and south through Gaza was barricaded by the Israelis until the withdrawal. With the Israelis and the barricades now gone, the new freedom of travel on the route is being exploited by al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades as they have similarly blocked the route demanding jobs. The lawlessness in Gaza sees no signs of abating.

Aside from raids, incursions and other military responses into Gaza and the West bank, Israel is also upgrading its checkpoints around Jerusalem. In the $500M plan to upgrade the Jerusalem crossing points, Israel intends to supplant the armed troops at the current military checkpoints and replace them with civilian contractors. Israel says this will ease tension by removing armed IDF soldiers from the transit points as well as shorten the amount of time it takes to pass through. The Palestinians, however, are objecting, calling it a de facto border without mandate.

While the Palestinians will complain of Israel’s new ‘creation of a border’, which is already walled off, Israeli citizens will surely cry foul when terrorist attacks see a sharp rise as terrorists most assuredly will seek to exploit the absence of armed IDF soldiers at the crossings.

December 21, 2005

Israel Pulls Plug on Jerusalem Polls

Israel has decided to disallow Palestinian voting in East Jerusalem in the upcoming January elections, stating that it will not allow Hamas to participate in the elections in the city.

“There is no reason whatsoever we should assist a terrorist organization on the ballot to gain victory. This would be like letting a Trojan horse into our city,” spokesman Raanan Gissin said.

The reference to Hamas as a Trojan horse lacks some merit, as Hamas is doing little to disguise itself or hide its intentions.

It may be, by design or otherwise, an assist to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who has sought to delay the January elections after seeing his Fatah party fracture with internal dissent, disagreement and power struggles. The Palestinians are decrying the move by Israel as an affront to their emerging democracy, saying that a vote without Jerusalem participation will never take place.

“We cannot hold elections anywhere if the Palestinians in Jerusalem are not allowed to vote,” said senior Palestinian official Nabil Shaath.

Abbas denounced Israel’s decision saying “this is a very dangerous situation,” adding that he would “study” the issue.

With Hamas sure to win majority power with or without Jerusalem, their spokesmen are demanding that the election be held on time. It is not in Hamas’ interests to allow Fatah any time to regroup and recover.

But Israel is not alone in its view, as the United States and the EU have threatened to suspend the Palestinian Authority itself if Hamas were to make significant gains in the elections.

Press reports also suggest that head of Egyptian intelligence, General Omar Suleiman, who met Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas on Wednesday, is attempting to persuade Mr Abbas to postpone the vote.

Gen Suleiman has reportedly passed on a warning from the US and the EU that aid to the Palestinian Authority would be suspended if Hamas were to make big gains and become part of the future Palestinian government.

Amid the political turmoil, the IDF continued to press its operations seeking to find and capture or kill terrorists who have attacked or seek to attack Israel following the suicide bombing at a mall in Netanya and continued Qassam rocket attacks from Gaza. In Jenin, one of the commanders of the Izzedine al-Qassam Brigades, Zayid Khalil Moussa, was shot and killed in an operation launched there.

The Israeli move is both easy to understand and easy to criticize. Yet, half of polled Israelis in favor of talks with Hamas, Israel would be wise to eventually allow the voting in Jerusalem to take place. Further, circumventing democratic elections in an attempt to pull the plug on the rise of Hamas in the Palestinian Territories will achieve little to that end. In fact, it would likely serve to bolster their popularity even further, giving them another reason to publicly claim the status of victims of Israeli oppression. With or without the elections and regardless of their outcome, Israel will still be at war with Hamas and Hamas will still seek the destruction of Israel.

With freedom and democracy comes responsibility, both collectively and with the individual vote. If the Palestinians collectively elect Hamas, through the tally individually cast votes, they will have collectively and individually chosen the open warfare with Israel that Hamas prosecutes.

The Palestinians have a choice, though not necessarily a good one. By choosing the more radical among them to be their voice, they must be prepared to accept the consequences they will have freely chosen.

Progress in Iraq

Operation Moonlight, the first brigade sized operation in Western Anbar province ends. While the tangible results are minimal, a single weapons cache was uncovered, the fact the operation was entirely driven by the Iraqi brigade, from intelligence, planning, manpower, to execution, is significant. America’s Son, a blogger and Marine Military Policeman who worked with the Iraqi soldiers, offers a first hand account of the operation and high praise of to the Iraqi troops, using his own training experiences:

On the eve of my indoc (try-out) for the Military Police Special Reaction Team, the team’s chief, a Gunnery Sergeant whom I respect greatly, told us that he could teach tactics to a monkey, but something that he couldn’t teach anybody was how to have heart and determination and how to keep your body going when your mind tells it to quit. I will never forget his words…”Gents, you’ve either got it, or you don’t”, the Gunny told us bluntly. “And starting tomorrow, my job is to see who has it, and wave bye-bye to those who don’t. Your mind will give up long before your body will.” I did not see a single soldier during the operation who didn’t have “it”. They caused me to dig a bit deeper as we went tromping along across the desert.

In Arabba, a region in Diyala province, Iraqi troops are asserting greater control and taking the initiative. The Iraqi troops have received their fifth battalion, and are challenging the local leaders to stamp out the insurgency. “Control your towns or we will. If you don’t, we’re going to do some things in your towns that we don’t want to do,” Col. Saman Talabani, the brigade commander.

In Samarra, a city once ripe for a Tal Afar styled assault, the 101st Airborne division is now assuming control from the 3rd Infantry Division’s 3-69th Armor Battalion. Lt. Col. Mark Wald, Battalion commander of the 3-69 Armor states the situation has improved dramatically since their arrival last winter; “We have the enemy activity down to such a significantly low level that we can now transition Iraqi security forces currently in our area of operation to take the lead where coalition forces are now in support.” Sgt. Steven Narron, speaks highly of the Iraqi troops in the area; “I have seen the discipline level of the Iraqi Army, the Iraqi Police and the Ministry of the Interior go up a whole lot since we’ve been here, the equipment they have and the soldiers they are getting have really improved.” Soldiers of the 101st have also uncovered a massive weapons cache, including rockets and missiles wrapped in plastic.

While the Iraqi Army assumes a greater role in security, reconstruction efforts continue country wide. Mosul, Tal Afar and Sadr City in Baghdad. Margaret Friedenauer of the Fairbanks News-Miner is embedded with the 172nd Stryker Brigade in Mosul, and says “Everything I thought I knew [about Iraq and how American troops operated] was wrong.” Read the entire post. She gathered her information through the media, and believed the conventional spin of failure and despair. Ms. Friedenauer now sees a different story.

The EU's New Resolve on Iran

Talks resume today in Vienna between Iran and the EU-3 (Germany, France and Britain) regarding the Iranian nuclear program, but there is not much hope held out for any breakthroughs. In what should be viewed as a role reversals at the table, it is now going to be the EU negotiators assuming the obstinate listener’s role while the Iranians will (presumably) attempt to persuade the other side to bend to their will.

“We won’t reopen negotiations, we will only listen to what the Iranians have to say, especially about research and development,” said an EU3 diplomat, alluding to centrifuge machines capable of enriching uranium to arms-grade level.

“We will see whether what they say to us in private is any different from what they have been declaring in public, to see if there is wiggle room for resuming negotiations.”

While not much, if anything, is expected to result from the awaited “talk about talks”, it is worthy of note that Europe seems to have come to realize the nature of the regime they are negotiating with. If there has been one benefit of the ascendance of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to the Iranian presidency, it has been his international ‘eye-opening’ effect. But it should be recognized that the nature of the Iranian regime and its oppressive and aggressive mullahcracy is no different now than it was before Ahmadinejad. It is as it always has been since the 1979 revolution: An Islamist theocracy with a stated foreign policy that includes the absolute destruction of another state: Israel.

This regime has been pursuing nuclear weapons since soon after its assumption of power. Despite signing onto various non-proliferation documents and ongoing talks regarding proliferation and development, this pursuit has not faltered. At best, it has altered.

While Iran has not been enriching uranium, one EU diplomat pointed out that Iran has been producing P2 centrifuges(mechanism used in the enrichment process) without pause throughout the entire span of negotiations. While Iran denies this, it must be understood that, as the diplomat noted, the IAEA “has no clue” what goes on at Iranian military facilities, where these centrifuges are actually manufactured.

On Tuesday, the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI) said in a London press conference that they had new information about 14 new sites and tunnel systems underground that house parts of Iran’s missile and nuclear research programs. This report, if correct, should not come as a surprise, as the Natanz enrichment facility (among others) has been largely constructed underground as clearly displayed in satellite imagery.

What proposals the Iranians bring to Vienna is unclear, but the end result will remain the same, as any and all ‘proposals’ by the Iranians will be contingent on “the condition that they recognize the rights of Iran.” That right is, of course, unfettered uranium enrichment.

“If that’s their only agenda, more dialogue will make little sense. The problem is, Iran’s hard-liners were encouraged to believe they could inch forward toward enrichment when they managed to restart uranium processing without provoking a referral to the U.N. Security Council,” another diplomat said.

Most observers contend that the whole of the ongoing dialogue thus far with the Iranian regime makes little sense. While the talks have been going on, Iran has been backfilling its nuclear development infrastructure (including parts and facilities production), as alluded to by the EU diplomat regarding the continued P2 centrifuge manufacturing. Once Iran reaches the point where they no longer find the negotiation process useful, they will simply be more prepared to ‘flip the switch’ and finally begin the process of physically creating weapons-usable fissile material.

Today’s “talks about talks” will likely lead nowhere diplomatically, but this time it will be an interesting and welcome possibility to see the EU-3 pushing away first from the table with resolve for a change, and not the Iranians.

December 20, 2005

GCC Summit Gets Tough on Nukes

Leading into the Gulf Cooperation Council’s Abu Dhabi summit, Sunday’s headline read ”Gulf Arab leaders to get tough on Iran and Syria”. The summit, attended by US-friendly nations Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Bahrain, Oman and Qatar, was billed this year as an arena to discuss and deal with two major regional crises in particular: The Iranian nuclear showdown with the West and the Syrian implication by the United Nations Independent International Investigation Commission in the murder of Rafik Hariri and, potentially, the dozen-plus bombings and attacks that have killed or maimed Lebanese anti-Syria figures. But the contents of the article belied the headline, as a quote from the GCC Secretary-General Abdul Rahman al-Attiya just before the summit opening foretold of events to come.

“We trust Iran but we don’t want to see an Iranian nuclear plant which is closer in distance to our Gulf shores than to Tehran causing us danger and damage.”

What unfolded during the summit was predictable, as the GCC Secretary-General appeared at the outset at least more concerned with a nuclear power plant leaking from an accident at Bushehr on the other side of the Persian Gulf than with the prospect of Iranian nuclear weapons. Israel, after all, is the true threat to MidEast regional stability.

After the meetings, Monday’s Reuters headline read ”Gulf summit raps Israel, not Iran, on nuclear issue”, and the verbiage of the GCC’s Abu Dhabi Declaration reached during the summit was no less surprising than GCC Secretary-General Abdul Rahman al-Attiya’s comments leading into it.

U.S.-allied Gulf Arab leaders called on Monday for a nuclear weapons-free Middle East, but singled out only Israel, not Iran, despite having voiced alarm at Tehran’s nuclear ambitions during their two-day meeting…

…The GCC settled instead for a reiteration of a previous proposal to “turn the Middle East, including the Gulf, into an area free of weapons of mass destruction”.

The final statement said: “The council calls on Israel to join the NPT and to open its nuclear facilities to inspection by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). It also calls on the international community to press Israel to do so.”

Iran’s nuclear program was left barely addressed, limited to no more than a mention of potential accidents at the Iranian facility closest to the participating Gulf states.

UAE Foreign Minister Abdullah Al-Nuaimi demanded environmental “guarantees and protection” from an Iranian nuclear plant on the Gulf coast.

“We are in a region very close to the (Iranian) nuclear reactor in Bushehr. We have no guarantees or protection against any leakage (from the reactor) which is on the Gulf coast,” he told reporters after the summit.

The stated reason for omitting any strong wording on the largely clandestine Iranian nuclear program was that the GCC members did not want to agitate the Iranian regime, an indication that the mere prospect of Iranian nuclear weapons is already impacting regional relations in the manor that Iran desires such weapons to produce.

But one Gulf official said it was because the GCC — which groups Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, Oman and the United Arab Emirates — wanted to keep diplomatic channels open.

“They (GCC leaders) are very worried about Iran’s nuclear programme. They opted for diplomacy so as not to alienate Tehran,” the official told Reuters.

The key difference seen by many between a nuclear Iran and a nuclear Israel is that it is Iran’s stated Foreign Policy to destroy the state of Israel. Israel has no such policy towards any state. If it had, it would have been acted upon.

Despite the lack of substance (the demands made of Israel have been stated by theGCC before), The Khaleej Times declared that there were ”landmark decisions” at the end of the GCC summit. In fact, the summit’s Declaration was tender with Iran and soft on Syria. The only landmark or notable statement was open praise of the democratic elections in Iraq for it’s effect on ‘maintaining Iraq’s unity’. But some may consider this less than genuine coming from leaders who run their countries though power gained by other than democratic means.

Internally in Iran, President Ahmadinejad has declared a new domestic policy outlawing all Western music (including Bach and Beethoven) on Iranian state television and radio broadcasts in an attempt to return the Islamic state to its 1979 revolutionary roots.

This kind of action may explain why reports were at least conceivable that Ahmadinejad had survived an assassination attempt in the Baluchistan region of southern Iran. Iran denied the reports, stating that Ahmadinejad was making a speech elsewhere at the time of the ambush, in which the driver and a member of the IRGC were killed along with one of the ambushing ‘bandits’.

While the Iranian nuclear ambitions and provocative anti-Israel statements are touted by Ahmadinejad for internal nationalistic support and, at the very least, external intimidation, the GCC is achieving little more than confirming the realization of external expectations. At the same time, such policies as the ban on all Western music on Iranian state broadcasts likely erode internal support among the sophisticated Persian population.

December 19, 2005

Operation Moonlight, with a Twist

KUWAIT CITY: On the evening of my departure from Iraq, I had the pleasure to have dinner and a long conversation with Lieutenant Colonel Christopher Starling, the operations officer of Regimental Combat Team – 2. As the operations officer, Lt. Col. Starling is the architect of the slew of operations which culminated with Steel Curtain, the big push to establish a permanent joint Coalition and Iraqi presence in the Western Euphrates River Valley.

Western IraqLt. Col. Starling explained the importance of the shift from large scale combat operations to reconstruction efforts, and the push for Iraqi Army to take greater responsibility in providing from the planning and execution of missions in their battlespace. This was stressed in a recent meeting with the operations officer of the 2d Brigade, 7th Division, which operates in Western Iraq in the Baghdadi, Hit, the Hadithah Triad, and Rawah region.

As if on queue, the 1st Brigade, 1st Iraqi Army Division, which is operating further west in the Al Qaim region, has launched Operation Moonlight. Captain Jeffery Pool, from the 2nd Marine Division, states “From the gathering of intelligence to the writing of operational order this is an Iraqi operation.” This is a multi-battalion operation, made up of 3 companies of Iraqi troops and a company from the Teufelhunden of 3rd Battalion, 6th Marines, and supporting aircraft from the 2nd Marine Aircraft Wing.

Moonlight is occurring just east of Ubaydi on both sides of the river, based on intelligence gathered by the Iraqi Army. The operation is “cordon and knock”, which is designed to prevent insurgents from re-establishing a presence. While the region has been quiet since Steel Curtain, roadside bombs are still being discovered and it is believed foreign fighters may be trying to infiltrate the region.

The independent planning and execution is a key to the success of the Iraqi Army and the greater security of Iraq. As is the willingness to take the initiative.

December 18, 2005

al-Qaeda's Democracy Problem

AL ASAD AIR BASE, IRAQ: The day before the parliamentary election, al Qaeda issued an “urgent statement announcing new attacks launched today against the American and Iraqi forces’ ‘strongholds,’ and to spoil ‘their celebrations of ‘democratic’ disbelief and adultery.’” Other Islamists and Salafist terrorist groups offered less than forceful protestations of the election and vowed not to commit acts of violence against voters or polling places.

After the latest and not-so-greatest al-Qaeda offensive fizzled out, the terrorist group issued another statement vowing to continue their campaign of terror in Iraq. The question is, to what end? Does al Qaeda have the ability to influence events in Iraq, the forwarding of Democracy?

LtCol Starling, the Operations Officer of Regimental Combat Team - 2, the unit in charge of western Anbar province, met with a very senior tribal leader the day after election and reported Sunnis voted overwhelmingly for Ayad Allawi, a secular Shiite candidate. Another U.S. source well in tune with the populace in Anbar province reported the same information. If this information is accurate, not only are Sunnis voting (their turnout is predicted at about 80%), but they are voting for a Shiite candidate. And there are calls across the board, from Sunni, Shiite and Kurdish leaders to create a government “to promote national unity.”

The Islamic Army of Iraqi laments Shiite control of the government “will be the mother of evils and disaster upon the Sunni people.” Zarqawi has been quite clear about his hatred and disgust for the “apostate” Shiites, and has repeatedly slaughtered Shiites in an attempt to instigate a civil war in Iraq. This is a vein that runs deep among the Salafists; the Shiites are hated more than Westerners for their different interpretation of Islam.

The depth of al-Qaeda’s nightmare in Iraq only deepens. Not only are their attacks less frequent and even less effective in influencing events on the ground, but their natural base of support, the Sunni population, has chosen democracy, and if reports are true, is voting for a secular Shiite to govern Iraq. This would be yet another ideological defeat for al-Qaeda and the rejection of their extremism in the heart of the Muslim world.

December 17, 2005

Election Reflections

AL ASAD AIR BASE, IRAQ: My impressions from Election Day in Barwana are available at The Weekly Standard – Election Day on the Eurphrates - Democracy vs. Zarqawi. Many of the photos I took are available in a flash presentation of the voting from Husaybah, Sadah and Barwana.

There is one story from Election Day I failed to share in The Weekly Standard. My Election Day experience began on the night of the 14th, when I hopped a flight from Al Asad Air Base. I accompanied a portion of the ballots that were designated for Barwana on a Marine CH-46 helicopter. We landed atop Haditha Dam, a beautiful setting for a night landing.

The following morning at 4:00 AM, I accompanied a convoy from the dam to Barwana. The ballots were with us. I watched them being unloaded by the Iraqi poll workers into the voting center. After the day ended, we took a convoy back to Haditha Dam, again with the ballots, but this time they were no longer empty forms, but contained the will of a portion of the Iraqi people.

We waited on the top deck of the dam for the night flight back to the air base. The flights were delayed as there was a lightening storm across the lake, which along with high winds precluded the helos from landing. After a month in Iraq with dry clear skies, the lightening strikes in the distance were a sight to behold.

The weather cleared at 2:00 AM, and we loaded the ballots onto the helos, and took the short flight back to Asad. Once there, the ballots where unloaded and stored in a secure location. It was quite an experience to accompany the transformation of mere sheets of paper into a statement of self determination and will.

The elation of the long days of travel and witnessing history was punctured by events in Barwana late this morning. The place where I stood just hours ago, a place of joy and hope for the Iraqi people, became a scene of terror and sorrow. The polling center, which once was a Ba’ath Party headquarters and now has been converted into a school, was struck by three mortar rounds.

Four children and one Iraqi soldier died on the spot. The soldiers were cleaning up the site from yesterday’s crowds while the children were playing soccer in the schoolyard. Two other children were wounder and evacuated to the air base for medical treatment. One of the children died while being treated. “Insurgents” continue to have no compunctions against killing children in their quests to destroy the dreams of the Iraqi people. And the joy of the ballots – possessing the will of Barwana’s citizens – continue to stand against the perpetrators of such acts of evil. Thankfully they are also protected by Coalition forces and an indomitable will to vanquish Iraq of the cowardly terrorists.

Victim of Attack in Barwana.

Barwana Attack Victim Receiving Treatment at Al Asad Air Base. Photograph by SSgt Beckstead.

December 15, 2005

Ahmadinejad Gets The EU's Attention

New German Chancellor Angela Merkel called Ahmadinejad’s remarks about Israel and the Holocaust ‘incredible’ heading into the European Summit in Brussels. It seems that Iranian President Ahmadinejad has, with his latest utterances, finally gotten the attention of Europe after statements of wiping Israel off the map, denying the Holocaust happened and suggesting Israel be moved to Europe or Alaska.

“I cannot avoid saying that this damages bilateral relations and puts a strain on the negotiations over the Iranian nuclear programme,” he [German Foreign Minister Steinmeier] told the parliamentary committee on foreign affairs Wednesday.

Foreign ministers at the EU summit formalized German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier’s earlier remarks as part of a broader statement on the Middle East Thursday.

A summit statement drafted by EU foreign ministers said of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s statement that the Nazi mass extermination of Jews was a myth: “These comments are wholly unacceptable and have no place in civilised political debate.”

It also voiced grave concern at Iran’s failure to remove suspicions about its nuclear intentions and said: “The window of opportunity will not remain open indefinitely.”

That Europe has not reacted as strongly to Iran’s nuclear deeds as they have to Ahmadinejad’s recent inflammatory words greatly frustrates many. With the dubious and arguably haunting nature of Iran’s nuclear program, such words have been warranted long before Ahmadinejad referred to the Holocaust as a ‘myth’. The unseen clock continues to tick as Iran creeps closer to nuclear weapons material production-capable.

There is a discrepancy between the two shortest timetables offered on that unseen clock. IAEA head Mohamed ElBaradei said that Iran was ‘a few months’ from producing enriched uranium once the Natanz facility comes online. But the IAEA also believes that Natanz is about two years from that point.

This is obviously where the IAEA and Israeli intelligence part ways, as Israel has been adamant lately that Iran will be capable of producing the enriched uranium in about three months from now without the two year wait.

There has been some back and forth on whether Israel has been preparing for a strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities come March, when Israel says Iran could start enriching uranium for weapons-ready material. However, Israel denies any Iran attack plans are in the works.

President Bush called Iran a ‘real threat’, reiterating one of the reasons why he referred to Iran as part of an ‘Axis of Evil’ in his 2002 State of the Union address after the al-Qaeda attacks of September 11, 2001.

Capping a day of worldwide condemnation provoked by Tehran’s latest anti-Israel gibes, Mr Bush said that he was “concerned about theocracy that has little transparency, a country whose president has declared the destruction of Israel as part of their foreign policy”. “I called it (Iran) part of the ‘axis of evil’ for a reason,” Mr Bush said. “It’s a real threat.”

It is quite possible that Europe no longer bristles at such a characterization, though one written statement from an EU summit certainly does not ensure that. But if this is the case, it will be very interesting to see how the Iranian nuclear crisis is handled from this point and whether the EU can drag the IAEA and the United Nations Security Council along with it.

Voting in Barwana

BARWANA, IRAQ: The polls have been open for six hours in the town of Barwana, one of the three Triad cities which include Haqlaniyah and Haditha. The poll site sits right beneath the now-destroyed Barwana bridge, where Zarqawi terrorists routinely executed residents for not conforming to their perverse interpretation of Islam.

Purple Fingered Kid.

Purple Fingers for All!.

It is estimated Barwana has upward of 40,000 residents. Turnout has been heavy; over 2,000 Iraqis have entered the polls by noon Iraqi time. During the referendum on the Constitution in October, about 2,300 total votes were cast in the city.

Barwana's Voters.

Barwana’s Voters Waiting in Line.

By mid-morning, the long and slow moving lines led to some problems with the crowd. At one point there was pushing and shoving between groups of voters, the poll works and Iraqi troops in the courtyard outside the polling station. An Iraqi soldier fired a few rounds in the air to get the crowd’s attention, and the problems quickly subsided after that. A few voters at the scene of the incident left, but the majority of those inside and the rest of the Iraqis queued outside remained in line. Some problems inside the voting center were resolved quickly by the poll workers, and the voting pace increased.

Captain Shannon Neller, Company Commander of Lima Company, 3rd Battalion, 1st Marines, ordered water, which belonged to the U.S. and Iraqi troops, to be handed out to the Iraqis waiting in the long lines. We handed out the bottles to the smiling crowd and much good will was reestablished.

Turnout is said to be high across the river in the sister city of Haqlaniyah. No reports are available from Haditha at this time.

Barwana, once part of Zarqawi self declared “Islamic Republic of Iraq”, is now the scene of al-Qaeda’s greatest nightmare: Muslims exercising their constitutional right to chose their destiny.

December 14, 2005

Red on Red in the West Bank and Gaza

The Israeli Defense Force conducted raids further into the West Bank, this time in Nablus, after earlier operations in Tulkarm on the Israeli-West Bank border. A Palestinian was killed and several more wounded as Israel continued its hunt for Palestinian Islamic Jihad terrorists after the PIJ suicide bombing in Netanya. Palestinians claimed that the IDF was firing at stone throwers, but Israel denied, saying they were returning fire from gunmen, which was also what was stated by West Bank witnesses. Once again, terrorists using children as shields.

In the West Bank, witnesses said Israeli soldiers wounded 12 stonethrowers and a gunman during clashes in Nablus in which militants mingled with youth throwing stones at soldiers during an Israeli arrest raid.

The Israeli army said troops had fired toward Palestinian gunmen who shot at them, but did not believe their fire had hit anyone. The army denied targetting [sic] stonethrowers.

In a scene reminiscent of last Thursday’s murder of an Israeli security officer stabbed at a Jerusalem border crossing, a Palestinian teenager attempted to stab a Border Police officer while trying to enter the IDF district offices in Jenin. He was disarmed and detained. Israel was also active again on the northern edge of the Gaza Strip, where more rockets were fired into Israel from the Gaza village of Abassan overnight. One Palestinian was killed there also.

Earlier today, an Israeli airstrike in Gaza killed at least 3 terrorists of the Popular Resitance Committees and possibly one member of the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades as they traveled in a car, reportedly enroute to carry out an attack. Witnesses said that there was a drone heard overhead at the time of the strike. The strike took place near the Israeli-Gaza Karni Crossing.

At the Fatah headquarters in Gaza, armed al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades members stormed the offices demanding jobs and claiming discrimination by other factions of Fatah. What ensued was a gunbattle between the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades members and the other Fatah members at the headquarters building. Three people were injured, including a bystander outside the offices. al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades is itself a faction of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ ruling Fatah movement.

The in-fighting was not limited to Gaza, as the West Bank also saw its share of turmoil. Gunmen stormed the Nablus offices, firing into the air, destroying parts of the offices and ripping out computers, which they took with them. Abbas pledged to protect election workers while at the same time reportedly rounding up members of the PIJ. The election offices have been closed.

In response, election commission director Ammar al-Dweik announced, “We have suspended all work until we receive security for our offices and our staff.”

Election commission head Hanna Nasser met with Abbas to discuss the crisis. Abbas pledged to protect election workers and “take required measures against the aggressors,” said Nabil Abu Rdeneh, a spokesman for Abbas.

All told, the Red on Red clashes at election offices took place in Nablus in the West Bank and Gaza City, Rafah and Khan Younis in Gaza.

The continuing internal fighting among various factions of Fatah leading into the January 25 elections serves to strengthen the already formidable challenge to their grasp on power mounted by Hamas. January looks to be an eventful month in the Levant, as the end of the informal truce agreement between various terrorist groups and Israel nd the Palestinian elections will violently cross paths.

December 13, 2005

Jihadis, Elections and Ramadi

RAMADI, IRAQ: As Election Day quickly approaches in Iraq, the various jihadi factions and the non-jihadist insurgents are taking their varied positions on how to deal with the voting process. The domestic insurgents, foreign fighters and jihadist do not have a unified position on how to deal with the electoral process, and their official statements reflects this.

al-Qaeda and allied Salafist jihadi groups, according to the SITE Institute, “vow to continue jihad, separate themselves from any group or person who enters into negotiations with the Iraqi government and its supporters, and states that involvement in the “political operation” is prohibited by Islamic law.”

Ansar Al Sunnah says the Islamic world has a choice between jihad and democracy, and those who participate in democracy are a “partner in the guilt” and are “losers.” They do not threaten to conduct attacks during the election, nor are they asking for their members to silence their guns.

Islamic Army in Iraq has ordered its adherents to refrain from attacking polling places. And Baathist insurgents are encouraging Sunnis to vote and vow to defend the polling centers from attacks by Zarqawi’s terrorists. This is a far cry from the bold threats made just under a year ago.

In Ramadi, Mizhar al-Dulaimi, a prominent Sunni and the leader of the Free Progressive Iraqi Party, has been murdered while campaigning in the heart of the city. Three of his bodyguards were wounded.

Coalition and Iraqi forces recently completed Operation Skinner, another battalion-sized joint operation in the heart of the city. Major General Huck has indicated to the leadership of Ramadi that a political solution to the insurgency in Ramadi is desired. But he has made it clear that all options remain on the table, including an assault on the scale of Fallujah, if the insurgency does not abate. This coincides with our analysis on the Ramadi Problem from December 7th:

Ramadi is the provincial capitol of Anbar province, with 400,000 residents, and there are political ramifications to an assault on the scale of Fallujah. The elections are less than two weeks away and the new government may seethings differently. This isn’t an issue of the Coalition possessing combat power, but a matter of trying an alternative strategy to subdue the insurgency in the city.

Major General Huck states a major part of the the solution to the security situation in Ramadi is the reestablishment of the police force, who, like in many cities and towns on the Euphrates River, have gone into hiding. But the cooperation of the leaders of Ramadi is needed to reestablish security.

At meeting of tribal and community leaders yesterday in the provincial capitol, the some participants reiterated their demand to raise a “Sunni Division” to police the city and allow for the withdrawal of U.S. And Iraqi government troops. They are living in denial, as this “solution was tried, and failed, when in March of 2004, the infamous “Fallujah Brigade” disintegrated after a repeated campaign of intimidation and terror.

The parliementary elections are a positive development for the future of democracy in Iraq and for further splits between the native insurgents and the jihadists, but are not a panacea to the problems in Ramadi. At some point the leaders and residents of the city must chose to reject the insurgency or suffer the fate of Fallujah and Tal Afar.

December 12, 2005

Mehlis Report II

The collision course of events continued as another anti-Syrian Lebanese was assassinated on the same day that Detlev Mehlis submitted his second written report to the UN Security Council on the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. The report further implicated Syria with fresh evidence from new witnesses and confessions that Syrian intelligence had burned documents related to the bombing that killed Hariri.

Gebran Tueni, an anti-Syrian Minister of the Lebanese Parliament and a journalist who ran the An-Nahar newspaper, was killed when, reminiscent of the Hariri murder, a bomb was detonated near his convoy. Three others were also killed in the blast. Tueni had just returned from Paris, where he had been living for several months for fear he might be assassinated by Syrian agents. That fear seems to have been well founded as suspicion has fallen on Syria for the latest in a long string of bombings and attacks on anti-Syrian journalists, politicians and public figures in Lebanon. The Lebanese government has called on the UN to forma a separate independent international investigation of the murders and attempted murders.

Many may not be aware of him, but this is an interesting glimpse at who Gibran Tueni was:

Al-Nahar was established by his grandfather in 1933. His father, Ghassan Tueni, ran the newspaper for decades, served in parliament, the cabinet, and represented Lebanon at the United Nations. Tueni was instilled with the principle of sectarian tolerance at an early age due to the intermarriage of his parents (his father was a Christian, his mother a Druze), which was virtually unheard of at that time. At age 18, he came to experience the horror of sectarian intolerance with the outbreak of the Lebanese civil war in 1976—he was shot in the legs by Palestinian guerrillas later that year and kidnapped for 36 hours by Christian militiamen the following year.

At the UN, Detlev Mehlis’ second report by the UNIIIC on the February 2005 Rafik Hariri assassination has been delivered to the UN Security Council, which has the power to impose heavy economic sanctions on Syria. It has threatened to do just that if Syria fails to cooperate. To that effect, Mehlis’ second report lays into Syria for not only lack of cooperation, but for stalling, obstructing and obfuscating through contradictory testimony. The investigation has added new evidence further implicating Syria in the assassination.

Detlev Mehlis, the leader of the inquiry, said in his second report to the Security Council on the February killing that his investigation had gathered a wealth of new and specific evidence.

His report said the information “points directly at perpetrators, sponsors and organizers of an organized operation aiming at killing Mr. Hariri, including the recruitment of special agents by the Lebanese and Syrian intelligence services, handling of improvised explosive devices, a pattern of threats against targeted individuals and planning of other criminal activities.”

Mr. Mehlis said that investigators had been continually slowed by “arduous discussions and considerable delay due to procedural maneuvering and sometimes contradictory feedback from the Syrian authorities.”

Mehlis, who will not continue to lead the investigation, is due to personally address and brief the Security Council Tuesday. There will likely be no sanctions imposed on Syria for some time, as Mehlis is asking that the investigation be extended by at least six months. His replacement for that extension, certain to be granted, has yet to be appointed.

The new report fingers 19 individuals suspected of being directly involved in the planning and/or execution of the Hariri bombing. Four senior Lebanese intelligence officers remain in custody and Mehlis’ report demands that Syria detain the five Syrian officials previously interviewed at the UN offices in Vienna. The report also demands the detention of a sixth unnamed individual who was not interviewed in Vienna, expected to be Bashar Assad’s brother-in-law, Assef Shawkat, head of Syrian intelligence.

It complained that Damascus was trying to cast doubt on the investigation’s findings, and said it had asked to interview a sixth Syrian official, also considered a suspect, but that session had to be postponed.

“This was, at the least, an attempt to hinder the investigation internally and procedurally,” it said.

It appears that the Syrian obstruction has paid off handsomely in the short term for Assad, regardless of how it is condemned in the report and regardless of any new investigations into the rash of murders of anti-Syrian officials since Hariri’s assassination. With a six-month extension to the investigation nearly certain to be approved, Bashar Assad now has that added time to wiggle from beneath the imposing weight of the Security Council. He may now find time for the ‘secret peace talks with Israel’ that he previously denied having, even if any such talks do end up being for public consumption only.

(Courtesy of the BBC, the Full 10Dec05 Mehlis Report.)

An Interview with Major General Huck

RAMADI, IRAQ: Here in Ramadi, where the insurgency is at its strongest, Major General Richard A. Huck, Commanding General of the 2nd Marine Division, leads the fight against the insurgency and reconstruction efforts in the bulk of Anbar province. The 2nd Marine Division’s area of responsibility is vast: it spans from east of Fallujah all the way out to the Syrian border, and as far south as Rutbah on the Jordanian border.

His command is fully joint and combined, made up of active duty, Reserve and National Guard units, as well as multiple divisions of the Iraqi Army and police forces. The U.S. Regiments and brigades under the division are made up of two Marine Regimental Combat Teams, RCT-2 and RCT-8, and the 2nd Brigade Combat Team, the “Iron Brigade” of the Pennsylvania National Guard’s 28th Division, which is in charge of Ramadi and the surrounding regions. Technically, Major General Huck commands the equivalent of an Army Corps, but he is not daunted by the numbers in the least.

Major General Huck has presided over perhaps the most important operation in Iraq since the fall of Fallujah in November of 2004. In what I have referred to as The Anbar Campaign, the Coalition and Iraqi troops systematically took over the various cities and town along the Euphrates River Valley which were once strong points of the insurgency, and seeded them with Coalition and Iraqi forces to provide a permanent presence.

The successful Coalition operations in Western Anbar, which culminated in Rivergate and Steel Curtain, were due to a shift in focus by General Casey, the Commander of Multinational Forces Iraq. “We didn’t have the people to [establish] a permanent presence, which was needed. He gave me the forces”, says Major General Huck. The Iraqi Security forces were the linchpin in establishing this permanent presence. “It’s all about the Iraqis.”

In June of 2005, there were only 34 Iraqi Security Force soldiers in AO Denver, the western section of Anbar province under Colonel Stephen Davis’ command. Today, there are over two Iraqi Army brigades operating in the battlespace, well over 4,000 troops. In Anbar province, there are over 15,000 Iraqi Security Force personnel overall.

There were worries about the capabilities of the Iraqi troops and their ability to integrate with Coalition forces. “In March, I was concerned if they would fight”, says Major General Huck. Today, this is no longer a concern, and U.S. and Iraqi forces operate jointly and live on the same posts throughout Anbar Province.

Major General Huck explains the impact of the Iraqi troops out west is just beginning to be felt, as the Iraqi Army is still ramping up its capabilities. “People have to understand it takes patience; You don’t build Iraqi Army battalions and brigades in a week or month.” The process to develop the Iraqi Security requires the Coalition to “train, integrate and operate” with Coalition forces, and “repeat the cycle.”

He sees the calls for a premature withdrawal from Iraq as folly; “Are you kidding me? We are getting closer to where we want to be, why would we want to withdraw now? These tigers just took five towns on the western Euphrates, why would we want to leave?”

Major General Huck illustrates the level of difficulty in transitioning from hot operations to classic low level insurgency warfare; “The kinetic piece is checkers, the stabilization and reconstruction piece is chess… We are in what is called phase four [of the counterinsurgency operations], stabilization and security is the hardest part.” Colonel Stephen Davis has described the reconstruction phase as “playing chess on a fourteen level board.” Both state the Marines, soldiers, airmen and navy personnel in their command are well prepared to deal with this transition.

From what I have seen while embedding at the platoon level in Western Anbar and Ramadi, they are right. The leadership at the junior officer and Non-Commissioned Officer level are well in tune with the importance of fighting a low level insurgency in Iraq. The “Strategic Corporal” is alive, well and operating in Iraq, and executing a mission outside of the range of combat operations, and venturing into the realm of Civil-Military Operations.

December 11, 2005

On Route Michigan

RAMADI, IRAQ: In war, the ability to adapt to the enemy’s tactics is crucial to maintaining the initiative. The insurgency in Iraq does not have the ability to defeat the Coalition using conventional means; in every engagement at the platoon size or greater, the insurgency has been thoroughly defeated. Because of this, the insurgency adapted its tactics and is relying on a political defeat of the largest Coalition partner, the United States, to achieve victory.

The two main tactics the insurgency has used are suicide bombs, which almost exclusively are executed by al-Qaeda in Iraq, and Improvised Explosive Devices. The suicide bombs make for stories of carnage and chaos, but often evoke a backlash from the Iraqi people and rarely kill American troops. IEDs, however, are the main cause of casualties among U.S. personnel. The insurgency’s hope is the steady trickle of deaths and injuries from IEDs will erode the will of the American public and cause the government to prematurely withdraw from Iraq.

The sophistication of the enemy IEDs has increased since their introduction after the fall of Saddam’s government in the spring of 2003. And so has the knowledge of the U.S. military’s IED hunters and the sophistication of their equipment.

One such IED hunting team is Dagger V of Task Force 54, which is comprised of Bravo Company, 54th Engineers from Bamberg, Germany, and various attached units. The main missions of Task Force 54 are to provide convoy escort duty, and clear roadways of IEDs and disarm them. Task Force 54’s area of operations is vast, spanning from the Syrian border to Fallujah.

The troops assigned to Task Force 54 are the perfect example of the adaptability of the U.S. military serving in Iraq. A good chunk of the equipment they trained on was left behind in Germany. Upon their arrival in country just weeks ago, they were trained to operate equipment such as the RG-31 and the Cougar, both specialized armored personnel carriers, and the Buffalo, which has a mechanical arm with a “claw” that can extend to sixteen feet to into the ground and interrogate and disable suspected IEDs.

These vehicles were selected for their survivability. Their unique v-shaped hulls are designed to deflect the blast impact from roadside bombs, and they are heavily armored.

I joined Lieutenant Colonel Shawn McGinley, the commander of Task Force 54, on a platoon-sized patrol to clear IEDs on Route Michigan, a stretch of road that bisects Ramadi and is the main route for military convoys.

LtCol McGinley described the road “as the most dangerous place in Ramadi, perhaps Iraq”, and the view of the street gives good credence to this belief. Route Michigan looks like a war zone, with destroyed facades of buildings, broken water and sewer lines dispensing their fluids into the streets, potholes in the streets and sidewalks from IED blasts and mortar fire, and barricades blocking the entrances from the side streets. Two armored Bradleys were destroyed here, and the track wheel rims were in full view as evidence. LtCol McGinley stated all of the damage has occurred since the fall of Saddam, and much of the heavy damage was caused by IEDs detonated by the insurgency.

We rode on the Buffalo, which comfortably seats six. The convoy was a mix of the Buffalo, RG-31s, Cougars, and up-armored Hummers. The engineers were visually searching for IEDs, and the vehicles crawled down Route Michigan at five miles per hour, with lights blazing, in an attempt to spot the bombs.

About halfway into the mission, the lead RG-31 spotted a large burlap bag near the center median of the road. The Buffalo moved in, the arm was extended, and the claw was used to interrogate the bag. They quickly discovered this was indeed an IED, made up of two 122mm artillery shells, a two liter bottle of gasoline, and the remote controlled detonating device. The IED was quickly disabled by the crew of the Buffalo and the rounds were prepared for detonation.

Further down the road, the body of an insurgent planting an IED was in full view on Route Michigan. He was killed by sniper fire just prior to the patrol.

The patrol completed its mission with no other incidents. It was a quiet night for this platoon. Another platoon discovered and disabled three IEDs elsewhere in the city.

December 10, 2005

A Shift in Operations

RAMADI, IRAQ: If you have a discussion with military officers in Western Anbar Province about the current and future status of military operations in the region, invariably the conversation will lead you to the reconstruction efforts of the Coalition. The phrases “switching from kinetic to non-kinetic operations” or “moving from kinetic operations to reconstruction” are often voiced.

Just the other day while at Al Asad Air base, I joined a group of senior staff officers of Regimental Combat Team – 2 in mid conversation at dinner, and the topic of the discussion was reconstruction efforts in a small strategic city in Anbar. Their concerns were the state of a water treatment plant, the status of schools and assisting in rebuilding them, electric power generation, and other mundane municipal issues. While these topics may seem less than glamorous to military officers, they astutely recognize their importance in countering the insurgency.

Major Tom Shoemake, the commander of the Civil Affairs Team in Hit, explains the mission, “Civil Military Operations is just another form of counterinsurgency warfare. Its predominantly a non-kinetic counterinsurgency tool. It takes place after the kinetic operations complete. After the fighting stops, you are not going through neighborhoods busting down doors, now you have to go in security and stabilization mode, you have to execute Civil Military Operations, you’ve got to get the power back on, drinking water is available, the essential services people need are there, the businesses are open. Its a whole different skill set.”

The dispersed nature of the towns along the Western Euphrates River Valley was once seen as an obstacle, but is now working to the Coalition’s advantage. The small communities make it easier for the Coalition to determine the tribal relationships and inner workings of the cities, and easier to identify members of the insurgency.

Major Shoemake explains how he gathered information in the city of Hit, with a population of 30,000. “First thing I did when I came in town was I knocked on doors and talked to the people. I can read the intelligence reports, listen to the mayor, listen to town council, but the heart of it comes from the people and that’s where I started. I started by meeting and talking to the people knocking on doors, going to markets, stopping on street corners, small businesses. It took three weeks before I had a picture of what was going on in the city… It gave me a solid picture of what I was up against.”

The impact of Major Shoemake’s efforts can be determined by the enemies he has made. The insurgents are actively targeting him. Just the other day, the terrorists detonated a large bomb in the center of the city market teaming with women and children in an attempt to kill him. One of his Marines was wounded in the blast.

As the Coalition continues to work to shut down the ratline from Syria, consolidate the gains from Operations Rivergate and Steel Curtain, and rebuild the small cities along the Euphrates River Valley, 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. Less than an hour ago incoming mortar fire landed about 300 yards from where I was sitting. The two rounds were quickly answered by counterbattery fire of the Army’s Paladin guns.

The larger cities give the insurgents cover due to the large populations. The foreign terrorists – al-Qaeda hit teams and suicide squads – which are responsible for the more craven acts of violence, can more easily blend in with the diverse peoples of the city.

But al-Qaeda in Iraq does not have complete immunity in the cities. In the past, the insurgency Ramadi has fought al-Qaeda to prevent them from slaughtering Shites and over the murder of Sunni sheikhs. Recently, residents of Ramadi turned in al-Qaeda in Iraq’s Amir Khalaf Fanus, also known as “The Butcher”.Fanus was number three on the most wanted list in Ramadi, and “wanted for criminal activities, including murder and kidnapping.” These are methods the terrorists and insurgents use to cow and intimidate the population.

The Coalition is taking further steps to improve the security presence in Ramadi. A press release from the 2nd Marine Division states “an additional 1,200 Iraqi Security Force soldiers have recently been stationed in Ramadi. Approximately 1,000 Iraqi Special Police Commandos and a mechanized Iraqi Army company completed their planned movement into the city.” The mechanized company, made of of Soviet era T-55 battletanks and BMP armored personnel carriers conducted its first patrol of Ramadi today.

The increased presence is designed to provide security for the election, and squeeze the insurgency and force the residents to make a choice between supporting the insurgents or rejecting them. The option to return to kinetic operations exists, however, as the inclusion of the mechanized Iraqi Army company makes clear.

December 9, 2005

Hamas to End Truce as Tensions Mount

Hamas’ political leader, Khaled Meshaal, has declared from a rally in Damascus that Hamas will end its truce with Israel when the current agreement expires at the end of the year.

Addressing the crowd at the Yarmouk refugee camp near Damascus, Mr Meshaal said there was no room for a truce.

“I say to our brothers in the [Palestinian] Authority that we are witnessing political stagnation,” he said.

“I say it loudly, we will not enter a new truce and our people are preparing for a new round of conflict.”

Meshaal was expelled from Jordan in the late 1990’s, where he was arrested and imprisoned after returning form a trip to Iran. Since his expulsion, he has been based in Damascus, Syria, as head of Hamas’ political bureau.

Come the beginning of January, the largest Palestinian terrorist group is likely to once again actively engage in direct attacks on Israel. Unlike the PIJ and others, Hamas has been the only group to curtail activities and observe the unofficial truce.

Meanwhile, Israeli security forces at a West Bank checkpoint intercepted and detained a teenage Palestinian suicide bomber with two cans of explosives and shrapnel strapped to his chest. Their attention was drawn to him as he was wearing a large bulky coat on an otherwise very warm day. The explosives were removed and destroyed by an EOD team before his arrest.

A day earlier at another checkpoint, a Palestinian crossing from the West Bank into Jerusalem through and Israeli checkpoint stabbed and killed an IDF soldier. The IDF has since shut down the crossing into Jerusalem.

While Israel continues to use artillery to pound northern Gaza’s open fields, used for Qassam rocket firing positions, IDF operations into the West Bank also continued in the overnight heading into Friday morning. Israeli security forces arrested 19 suspected terrorists near the West Bank town of Tulkarem overnight, with 10 belonging to the PIJ, the group responsible for Monday’s Netanya suicide bombing that killed 5 Israeli civilians. Tulkarem is the town where the recent Netanya suicide bomber lived.

The Palestinian Authority is apparently also rounding up terrorists suspected to be involved with the Netanya killings and has confirmed that it has apprehended 17 members of the PIJ (Palestinian Islamic Jihad). Palestinian Islamic Jihad spokesman Abu Majd claims that 80 PIJ members have been arrested by the PA. It appears that the Israelis are detaining any and all members of the PIJ that they can identify, while the PA seems to be more selective and arresting those suspected of Netanya bombing involvement. However, as selective as they may appear to be, they are not detaining key PIJ leaders, whom they certainly can identify.

“These people are not our top members, but these arrests still affect us,” he [PIJ spokesman Abu Majd] said. He said those arrested including low-level operatives, university leaders and even high school students.

The rocket attacks have tailed off since Israel has been persistently hammering the usual firing points with artillery. While media reports consistently refer to them as ‘empty open fields’, largely because there seem to be no casualties, what is likely happening is the IDF is monitoring potential and historical Qassam firing positions 24/7 with unmanned aerial drones and hammering away when there is any movement in them. Also likely is the use of the artillery firings being purely a deterrent on other occasions. If and when Israel relaxes the artillery fire, the rocket attacks will pick back up. Right now, the PIJ and Popular Resistance Committees are keeping their heads down, possibly considering buildings from which to fire under at least some concealment. With the aerial monitoring, even transporting the missiles to their potential firing positions is risky, especially at the load and unload points.

Following on the missile strike that killed a Popular Resistance Committees field commander, Israel launched a missile attack Thursday on a house that contained two al-Aqsa martyrs Brigades terrorists in the northern Gaza town of Jabaliya, killing both of them. The two were, among other things, said to be involved directly in the recent rocket and mortar attacks. At their funerals, Palestinians were in the streets chanting “revenge, revenge”.

A PA spokesman condemned Israel’s self-defensive counterattacks as counterproductive.

Palestinian officials warned that Israel’s military strikes would only inflame tensions.

“The Israeli action is going to sabotage the efforts made by the Palestinian Authority to maintain calm and revive the peace process,” said Tawfik Abu Khoussa, spokesman for the Palestinian Interior Ministry.

While the violence continues, Israel has received no pressure to resume talks of creating transportation convoys that were intended to allow Palestinians to shuttle to and from the West Bank and Gaza. With this and the closing of the Jerusalem-West Bank checkpoint where the IDF soldier was stabbed to death, Palestinians have complained that the inability to move from place to place as a result was a collective punishment for Palestinians rather than a security measure, as Israel claimed. The intercept and detention of the suicide bomber at the West Bank checkpoint today clearly illustrates the security increased acute risk the border crossings currently pose.

December 8, 2005

Afternoon with the Azerbaijani

HADITHA DAM, IRAQ: When I first arrived at the Haditha Dam, troops in U.S. Army patterned desert camouflage were marching in formation to dinner. It was odd, as it was the first time I witnessed troops marching in Iraq. Upon closer inspection, the soldiers were carrying folding stock AK-47, and it dawned upon me that these are the Azerbaijani soldiers assigned to guard the dam.

Azerbaijan is a country of about eight million located on the Caspian Sea. Its population is predominantly Muslim, and its primary industries are oil and tourism. There are about 80,000 soldiers in the Army, and service is mandatory at age 18. After the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, Azerbaijan was the first republic to adopt democracy.

The Marines at Haditha Dam describe the Azerbaijanis as tough, disciplined and fearless. Major Sam Carrasco, the Operations Officer at the 3/1 states, “We are very happy with the Azerbaijani troops. They are very competent, very professional. We are happy to have them as a Coalition partner.” Chief Warrant Officer Pitchard operates closely with the Azerbaijanis on a daily basis, and communicates with Captain Rashad Gararev, who serves as the liaison between the units and speaks impeccable English.

The company of 150 Azerbaijani troops provide perimeter security, escort duties and other security functions at Haditha Dam. They are commanded by Major Ramiz Eyubov, who wishes to expand their mission; “We have requested to go on patrol and missions” outside the confines of the dam, but “only at the government level can we expand our mission.”

Major Eyubov explains their role in Iraq; “We have a strong relationship with the Iraqis and they know we are doing our job. We are here to help the Iraqi people. We have to do our job for the Iraqi people to have democracy.” He also has hope for the Iraqi people, “The future will be good for Iraq. Accepting the constitution and democracy, and the December 15th Election will be great for this country.”

The close ties between the Marines and the Azerbaijanis are visible, and the respect is mutual. “We have a very strong, a good relationship with the Marines. It is a nice feeling to see how Marines operate and how they serve”, says Major Eyubov.

I had the pleasure to sit down with Major Eyubov, Captain Javadov Rimini, the company’s Executive Officer, and Captain Gararev. We drank tea, had a conversation about our homes, and families, and Captain Gararev showed me photographs of the beautiful countryside outside of his home city of Baku. We took photographs and exchanged handshakes, and Major Eyubov kindly gave me a gift of Azerbaijani champaign, which will be a fine treat for New Years Eve celebrations.

War is an ugly business, but it is also a place where men and nations forge bonds where they may not have done so.

Azerbaijani Unit Crest

Azerbaijani Unit Crest.

Captain Javadov Rimini, Major Ramiz Eyubov, Bill Roggio and Captain Rashad Gararev.

Captain Javadov Rimini, Major Ramiz Eyubov, Bill Roggio and Captain Rashad Gararev.

A Tale of Two Borders

Israel and terrorists in Gaza continue to trade blows. The Palestinian Islamic Jihad suicide bombing that killed five in a busy Netanya mall drew an Israeli airstrike response that killed the field commander of the Popular Resistance Committees near Rafah. While Israel and the Islamic Jihad engage to the south, to the north Syrian President Bashar Assad is may be eager to restart peace talks with Israel.

In the airstrike in Gaza, Mahmud el-Arqan was killed as two missiles struck the car he was driving. Israel said it targeted the Popular Resistance Committees field commander because he had collaborated with the PIJ on recent attacks and weapons smuggling. Residents of Haqlaniyah Speaking with Interpreter.He was likely a target of opportunity as well as choice who was seen, identified and eliminated. Various reports range from five to ten others injured in the strike. Israel also pounded rocket launch sites again with artillery.

The Popular Resistance Committees is a cooperative of sorts among Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades and terrorists of other groups for the purposes of shared strategies, coordinated operations and combined tactics, predominantly rocket attacks.

The Popular Resistance Committees had vowed to continue rocket attacks from Gaza into Israeli settlements in Israel, largely populated by Israelis forced to leave their Gaza homes after the withdrawal. The homemade Qassam rockets are highly inaccurate and cause little damage as a result.

The same spokesman told reporters, “We are going to respond to every Israeli attack in order to show them that while our means are simple, our resolve is strong.”

The relatively ineffective Qassam rockets appear to be the weapon of choice as infiltrating Israel from Gaza has never been more difficult.

In a radio interview via phone with John Batchelor just north of Gaza, Abu Abir, Spokesman for the Popular Resistance Committees, confirmed as much when he said point-blank that it takes a month or more to infiltrate a single suicide bomber into Israel, but it takes just an hour to set up and fire Qassam missiles.

Previously on Monday, the IDF held raids in the West Bank towns outside of Nablus and Hebron resulting in the capture of two members of the PFLP and one PIJ member.

At the Islamic Conference Organization summit in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, Jordan’s King Abdullah is pressing Syria’s Bashar Assad to resume peace talks with Israel. In so doing, King Abdullah also enjoys the support of both Egypt and Saudi Arabia. With Detlev Mehlis’ final report to the UN Security Council coming in just one week regarding Syrian involvement in the car bombing murder of former Lebanese Prime Minister, Rafik Hariri, it appears Assad may be more than willing in attempts to head UNSC sanctions of at the pass.

“Syria would go along with almost anything at this point,” a senior Arab diplomat said yesterday. “They are looking for any leeway. They do not want to be penalized like Libya or Iraq. They are definitely looking for a way out of this mess.”

At first glance, the phrasing of “definitely looking for a way out of this mess” may appear a less than satisfactory Syrian escape from consequences. This is, however, an extremely positive development. The whole point of sanctions is not to punish, but rather to change behavior. If the very real prospect of sanctions compels the desired change, it is better for all involved, most notably the people of Syria who will bear the brunt of the sanctions’ effect. If talks (and other behaviors) occur and sanctions are delayed, the stick must remain very near the carrot to prevent potential backsliding.

For its part (and from a definite position of strength), Israel’s Prime Minister Ariel Sharon sees no real urgency in resuming talks with Syria.

Israel has occupied the Golan Heights area between the two countries since the 1967 war. Last week, Ariel Sharon, the Israeli prime minister, said he was in no hurry to resume peace talks with Syria. “In my opinion, Israel should not surrender the Golan Heights,” Mr Sharon said.

It is also worthy of note that, as the Mehlis report to the UNSC and potential sanctions draw nearer, the past two weeks have seen very little activity from Hezbollah since the skirmishes along the Lebanese-Israeli border.

With Palestinians making war in the south and Syria potentially suing for peace in the north, there is, as usual, never a dull moment in the Levant.

December 7, 2005

On the Offensive in Ramadi

HADITHA DAM, IRAQ: Coalition forces continue to chip away at the insurgency in Ramadi. The latest operation, Rams consists of “approximately 100 Iraqi Army Soldiers from 3rd Battalion, 3rd Brigade, 1st Iraqi Division and 400 Soldiers from the 2/28 Brigade Combat Team”.

Five al-Qaeda in Iraq suspects have been captured. Four IEDs and four caches have been found during the operation. According to the CENTCOM press release, “One of the caches was significant in size and contained the following items: dozens of mortar rounds, approximately 100 rocket propelled grenades and RPG launchers, approximately 150 hand grenades, anti-armor missiles and rockets, a rocket launcher, dozens of small arms weapons and AK-47s, plastic explosives, bomb-making material and body armor.” These weapons, specifically the IEDs, will be unavailable to the insurgency for attacks during the election.

Rams follows six prior operations in the city directed at individual neighborhoods, which began with Mountaineers in early October, and was followed with Panthers, Bruins, Lions, Tigers, and Shank

The results of the small scale offensives in Ramadi are still in question. Attacks in the city are said to be down 60%, but there is still a robust insurgency in the city. Ramadi is the provincial capitol of Anbar province, with 400,000 residents, and there are political ramifications to an assault on the scale of Fallujah. The elections are less than two weeks away and the new government may see things differently. This isn’t an issue of the Coalition possessing combat power, but a matter of trying an alternative strategy to subdue the insurgency in the city.

December 6, 2005

Patrolling Haqlaniyah

HAQLANIYAH, IRAQ: The drive from Haditha Dam to Haglaniyah was fast and furious. The night starts with a ride in the back of an open 7 ton transport with a crew from Sky News and a team of Marines. The convoy roared down the roads at high speed during the night in blackout conditions, making turns a truck that large had no right making. The trip from the dam to Raider Nation, the foward position of Kilo Company, 3rd Battalion,1st Marines, was low key save some interesting driving.

Raider Nation is one of four outposts in Haqlaniyah. The bulk of the company is stationed at Raider Nation, along with a platoon of Iraq soldiers. The other three outposts are Black Hole to the north of Haqlaniyah, TCP to the west, and K3 to the south. Lima Company sits to the east of the river in Barwana. Kilo Company’s three outposts contain a platoon of Iraqi infantry and one squad of Marines who acts as advisors in addition to their duties.

Checkpoints have been established into and out of the city, which allows Kilo to monitor traffic. The Raiders have cleared each house in the city since Operation Rivergate, and over 35 significant weapons caches have been discovered in the process. One find contained over 100 large caliber artillery shells. The Raiders also agressively patrol the desert regions to the west and south of the city to interdict insurgent mortar teams.

Haqlaniyah is a markedly different town than Husaybah. The residents are more educated, and there are many professionals who work at the dam or in other industry in the area. The streets are cleaner, the people’s dress is more western and there are more expensive cars on the road.

Residents of Haqlaniyah Speaking with Interpreter.

Residents of Haqlaniyah Speaking with Interpreter.

The Marines based out of Raider Nation aggressively patrol the city jointly with Iraqi Army troops. Today I walked the city with 1st Squad from the Raider’s 2nd Platoon. The squad is led by Corporal Joe Sanchez, a tough Marine who is on his third tour of duty in Iraq.

Today’s mission was to escort a psychological operations team from Detatchment 930, Company A, 9th POV out of Ft. Bragg, North Carolina. Contrary to the common negative perceptions about their mission; psyops responsibility is to provide information on local elections and information on the Coalition’s reconstruction efforts. A campaign of deliberate misinformation would render the unit inneffective.

The the psyops team is lead by Sergeant Rivers, and today’s assignment was to distribute leaflets and place posters on the walls with information on the election to the residents of Haqlaniya. Sgt.Rivers was adament that this was a job for the accompanying Iraqi troops; “This is their election, and they need to do the work.”

The Iraqi units based out of Haqlaniyah are raw troops, fresh out of training. The Marines here do not speak as highly of them as the tough Iraqis of the 1st Divison they fought with in Fallujah. But there is an understanding that the Iraqi troops they work with are in their infancy, and there is much room for improvement.

Iraqi Troops Hanging Election Posters

Iraqi Troops Hanging Election Posters in Haqlaniyah.

On today’s patrol, the Iraqi troops were not quite as disciplined as those I walked with in Husaybah, but they were capable. They enthusiastically hung the posters and handed out the election flyers to the numerous residents they encountered. Afterwards at the squad’s debrief, Cpl. Sanchez stated “the Iraqi troops performed their mission out there today.”

The walk was relatively uneventful. Two shots from what is belived to be an AK-47 were heard, but their origin was not determined. A car that was on a watchlist for acting as a getaway vehicle in a past shooting was identified, and weaved out of the traffic to elude the patrol. Lance Corporal Randy Lake gave chase on foot, and the psyops Humvee attempted to pursue, but the car escaped.

Just a week ago mortar and small arms fire was common at Raider Nation. The past few days have been quiet in Haqlaniyah and the surrounding areas.

1st Squad, 2nd Platoon, Kilo Company, 3rd Battalion, 1st Marines

1st Squad, 2nd Platoon, Kilo Company, 3rd Battalion, 1st Marines.

December 5, 2005

Diverging Relations

While we debate the possible positives of Russian moves to join the U.S. and EU-3 in efforts to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons or other efforts to develop nuclear technology outside the terms of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has acknowledged that Russian-U.S. relations are diverging. The evidence is more clear than the words of Foreign Minister Lavrov.

“We can come to the conclusion that in the whole complex of our (foreign) relations the weight of existing military and strategic links between Russia and the United States … will be constantly declining,” Lavrov said in his end-of-the-year web address.

Lavrov calls for greater equality of relations between the U.S. and Russia stressing “partnership and mutual respect.”

Issues between the U.S. and Russia are many – from the Putin government’s restrictions on personal or business liberties, to the Russia’s attempts to maintain influence in former Soviet republics, to the construction of the Buesher nuclear power plant in Iran.

On Friday, Russian sources announced a $1 billion deal which included 30 Tor-M1 surface-to-air missiles being delivered to Iran over the next two years. The deal was confirmed today by Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov.

“A contract for the delivery of air defense Tor missiles to Iran has indeed been signed,” Ivanov was quoted as saying by the Interfax news agency.

While the U.S. has remained generally optimistic with regard to Russian attitude, and Colonel General Yuri Baluyevsky has stated that Russia is no longer oriented towards large scale nuclear or conventional warfare with the West – the Russians remain aligned toward non-U.S. allies, such as Iran, and concerned that former Soviet states such as the Ukraine are moving toward NATO or other Western alliances. Most tellingly, the Russians have supported Iran’s nuclear development efforts while pointing at Israel’s suspected nuclear arsenal as a sign of U.S. hypocrisy.

“The U.S. has made demands that a number of countries’ nuclear programs should be completely transparent,” he [Colonel General Yuri Baluyevsky] said. “On the other hand, the U.S. turns a blind eye to the fact that Israel has for a long time … had a significant nuclear arsenal.”

Should the Russians fully support efforts to prevent Iran’s nuclear development from reaching weapons or weapons manufacturing capability, much tension between the former foes will be allieviated. If Russia were to take that stand, other purely defensive weapons sales are far less likely to draw criticism from the U.S.

On the Euphrates

HADITHA DAM, IRAQ: The company of Marines known as the Dam Security Unit are a unique bunch. The DSU is a one of a kind unit in the Marine Corps. They are primarily made of of reservists, almost 90% of them. And they come from units across the county; Texas, Florida, Virginia, Indiana and Mississippi. Naturally there were some snags in the beginning while integrating the disparate units, but you wouldn’t know it by watching them operate.

Their primary mission is to provide for security on the Haditha Dam. To acheive this, they conduct patrols and provide a quick reaction force on the river and lake. But the DSU is looking to expand its mission to support operations up and down the river.

Euphrates Riverine Environment

The Euphrates Riverine Environment.

Their boats are called Small Marine Riverine Craft, are 40 feet long by 10 feet wide, and are powered by twin souped up 440 horsepower racing engines. The SMRC can easily exceed 40 knots, and is both quick and highly maneuverable. Because it is jet driven and not propeller driven, the SMRC can go into waters as shallow as 9 inches. It holds a crew of five, and can carry up to thirteen Marines for an assault.

The boat packs some serious firepower to go along with its speed. It mounts two M240G machine guns forward, and either a .50 caliber machine gun at the rear, or a or a Mark 19 grenade launcher. The boat is also equipped to mount an electric powered gatling gun.

Small Marine Riverine Craft

Small Marine Riverine Craft.

The DSU company is commanded by Major Joe Cleary. I took a ride on the “Beefirm”, whose crew is Sergeant Kevin Firmin, the boat captain; Corporal Brandon Beebe, the cockswain; “Doc” Thomas Stein, the navy corpsman; Corporal Oleg Bakalashev, the .50 cal gunner; and Lance Corporals Joseph Finchum and Bryan Kay, the M204G gunners.

Sgt. Firmin speaks highly of his crew, “I have the three best gunners in the company. Cpl. Bakalashev is a sniper on the .50, and Kay and Finchum spray and pray. Cpl. Beebe can put the boat in any space” of the size of the boat.

The Crew of the Beefirm

The Crew of the Beefirm.

The sunrise patrol was on Lake Haditha, and consisted of four boats. The shoreline of the lake is largely barren of vegatation, making identifying potential threats more easily than on the river downstream of the dam. The morning patrol covered half the lake in in a little more than one hour. One fishing boat was searched and two Marines from another boat dismounted to the shore to search a suspicious tent. Sgt. Firmin unwisely allowed me to take the boat for a spin at the end of the patrol, and I can attest to the boat’s speed, power and quickness. We returned in one piece.

After completing the morning cruise, the boats were drawn up from the lake and loaded for transport for a three boat patrol downriver from the dam. The riverine environment downriver is markedly different than the lake. The banks are thick with reeds and palm groves, and the landscape was dotted with ancient aqueducts.

The area is ripe for ambushes by insurgents from the shore, and the DSU has taken fire from the banks in the past. Sgt. Firmin stated “the unit out here in the last rotation was in 38 firefights in 6 months.” Recent patrolling has been quiet.

Since the bridges have been taken out along the Euphrates during operations over the summer, boat traffic across the river has dramatically increased. The river is shallow enough it can be walked across in many places. A boat ride across the river can take less than 2 minutes, making patrolling the rivers vital for keeping insurgents from using this mode of transportation.

The afternoon patrol lasted for about one hour, with two trips up and down the river to a point just north of Haditha. It was another quiet patrol.

There is talk of disbanding the company in the near future. This would be a great mistake, as the riverine environment demands a presence on the river. Iraq is the Land of the two Rivers, and the River War is fought on the rivers as well as its banks.

Gaza Strip Flares Up

A Palestinian Islamic Jihad bomber blew himself and five Israeli civilian shoppers up in a Netanya mall today, further indication that the fragile truce between Israel and groups within the Palestinian Territories has effectively ended. While Hamas has largely adhered to the truce, the Iranian-supported PIJ has been responsible for the vast majority of attacks on Israel since the ceasefire’s inception. Hamas has largely focused its ire internally on the fight with the Palestinian Authority for political popularity and control within the Palestinian Territories. With no real dog in the political arena, the PIJ has continued its focus on attacking Israeli civilians.

While Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas visited Italy, meeting with Pope Benedict XVI and inviting him to Jerusalem, a weekend of violence in the Gaza Strip seems to mark the beginning of the end of a truce that is due to expire at the end of the year. For its part, Islamic Jihad has already stated that it does not plan to enter into a new agreement.

In separate incidents, two Palestinians were killed by Israeli forces. One of them was a Palestinian in a boat that ignored warning shots and reportedly fired on the IDF vessel. Palestinians claimed the man was a fisherman and rocket attacks from Gaza into Israel were carried out.

Israel responded by targeting artillery on the Gaza field from which the Qassam rockets were fired and air-to-ground missile attacks on a metal workshop which Israel says was a Qassam rocket lab used to facilitate terror attacks. No one was in the building during the overnight raid. Also hit in a separate raid was an Islamic Jihad charity that was said to be a center for disbursing payments and funding terror attacks. These were the first airstrikes by the IDF into Gaza since late October. This prompted more rocket attacks into Israel from Gaza.

There is cause to believe that this may be the norm rather than the exception until at least the January 25 Palestinian elections, as the Palestinian Authority, Hamas and Islamic Jihad vie for power and public support in the run-up (though the latter not for political/electoral purposes). On the other side, Israel’s Defense Minister, Shaul Mofaz, had strong words in response, demonstrating that Israel has little tolerance for attacks into its territory after the Israeli pullout from Gaza.

“I have ordered the army to take immediate offensive measures in reaction to the rocket and mortar firing … If calm does not reign in Israel, it will not reign in Gaza,” he told public radio.

The Palestinian Authority has called for more arms and equipment to combat the general lawlessness in Gaza, stating that only one in twenty PA police officers are armed. In Friday street-fighting between Gaza clans, five Palestinians were killed, including one PA police officer. The PA hopes to recruit the better-armed Hamas, Islamic Jihad and groups to join the ranks of the PA police force.

“My ministry is working carefully on the process of bringing the armed wings and their members inside the security services,” he said. While he said the security services would “be open to everyone,” it is highly unlikely that Hamas members would join up.

It is indeed very unlikely that Hamas, the Palestinian Authority’s chief rival for control, would see any of its members join PA ranks, either now or after the elections.

December 4, 2005

After Rivergate

HADITHA DAM, IRAQ: The morning convoy from al-Asad Air Base to Haditha Dam was quick, considering the large number of vehicles. There were numerous contractors, mainly from Kellogg, Brown & Root, intermixed with the military train to the dam. The trip was uneventful and the desert scenery was beautiful.

Haditha Region Satellite ImageThe Haditha Dam and the lake it formed is a welcome sight in a region that wholly consists of desert expanses, minus a narrow band of green along the Euphrates River Valley. The dam was created for two purposes: to provide electricity and to control of flow of water downriver for agricultural irrigation. The hydroelectric dam is capable of providing thirty percent of the power for the nation, but its primary mission at this time is to maintain the water levels of the river.

Currently the Thundering Third of the 3rd Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment is securing the Triad City region of which is comprised of the dam, and the cities of Haditha, Haqlaniyah and Barwana. A battalion of tough Azerbaijan troops and a Dam Security Unit [insert joke here], made of a Marine manned boat patrol unit, provides security for the dam.

The 3/1 has taken hard casualties during its two tours in Iraq. During Operation Iraqi Freedom II (the second troop rotation), the 3/1 was the lead assault battalion at the Battle of Fallujah. The battalion lost 23 Marines in Fallujah alone, and during OIF II, lost 33 killed in action and awarded 475 purple hearts for wounds received in combat. During this rotation in Iraq, 2 have been killed in action and 41 wounded.

Major Sam Carrasco, the Executive Officer of the 3/1, describes the Triad Cities region as the “fulcrum” of western Iraq, as it sits at a crossroads of the roads from the Syrian and Jordanian borders to Mosul, Ramadi and Baghdad. Between the dam and the crossroads, the Triad Cities has strategic importance.

For this reason, the Triad Cities were a target for the insurgency in 2004 and 2005. They conducted a campaign of terror to intimidate the local population, and the police forces of the region disintegrated. al-Qaeda is said to have flown the black flag over the cities, and it is believed Zarqawi preached at a local mosque and maintained a home in Haditha, although Major Carrasco says no evidence of this was discovered other than some al-Qaeda literature.

Coalition forces conducted numerous raids in Haditha, Haqlaniyah and Barwana, but did not possess enough forces to maintain control of the cities. This ended with Operation Rivergate, when a battle position was established in each city, manned by the Marines of the 3/1 and Iraqi Army troops. In an interesting note about the planning of Rivergate, the 3/1 was able to catch the enemy off guard by marching into Haditha by foot from the desert in the west. The insurgent’s defenses were oriented to the north towards the dam. The Thundering Herd was able to clear the city without taking casualties.

Since Rivergate, it is believed the foreign fighters fled the city “to go where the Coalition forces are not”, says Major Carrasco. But a determined local insurgency still exists, along with a violent criminal element. And the insurgency is targeting Coalition forces as well. Over 100 “IEDs of significance”, described as highly lethal and sophisticated bombs made with large-caliber rounds, have been uncovered.

During a patrol on November 19th, a Coalition foot patrol was hit with such a device,and then ambushed by insurgents firing from the surrounding homes,using women, children and families as human shields. The Marines fought back, as is their right to defend themselves, and innocents were killed. The insurgents used this as an opportunity to spread rumors of wholesale killings of civilians.

A campaign of intimidation is occurring against the residents at this time, and the Coalition forces are currently fighting to gain the trust of the locals in order to establish security. Currently there is no police force in the region. Barwana is described as the most stable city, with Haditha a mixed bag and Haqlaniyah being the most dangerous.

Tomorrow, I’ll be taking a ride on the river with the Marines of the Dam Security Unit then heading to Haqlaniyah embed with India Company.

US, Israel Differ on Post-Assad Syria

While Syria was busy denouncing the Mehlis Commission’s investigation, demanding a new probe, and Lebanon was asking for a six-month extension to the probe, the United States and Israel sat down to compare notes on what a post-Assad Syria might look like. They differed widely.

In a strategic dialogue held last week in Washington between the two countries, Israeli representatives warned that a future regime in Syria, should Assad lose power, might be just as problematic as the old one.

The United States viewed a future Syria after Assad’s fall to be similar to that of Lebanon, which has embraced and fostered democracy. This contention was supported by the view that there is already a sizable democratic opposition within Syria.

Israel offered three scenarios that they saw as more likely to happen than anything the Americans have envisioned.

1. Syria will descend into a chaotic state of civil war.

2. Assad will merely be succeeded by another authoritarian hardliner Alawite.

3. Syria will be ruled by a radical Islamist regime.
While there are opposition organizations in Syria seeking to unseat Assad, as the American position states, it should be noted that the strongest among them is the Muslim Brotherhood. al-Qaeda’s Ayman Zawahiri joined the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt at the age of 15, eventually moving to the even more radical Egyptian Islamic Jihad, which he merged with al-Qaeda in 1998. The Muslim Brotherhood is gaining ground in Egypt through recent elections marred by violence.

Iran Set to Ban IAEA Inspections

As America and Britain change their approach and now seek to encircle Iran diplomatically by including Russia and China directly in the process, the Iranian Guardian Council has approved the Mejlis’ bill that outlaws IAEA nuclear inspections if Iran is put before the UN Security Council over its nuclear development program. The mere formality of Ahmadinejad’s signature will make it Iranian law.

In a change of course, the US and Britain have decided to bring Russia and China into the fold. This move goes far beyond the previously floated proposal of Russia enriching uranium for Iran and receiving back Iran’s spent fuel. This involves both Russia and China in actually examining shared intelligence data on Iran’s nuclear program in hopes that, should they agree that the evidence points to at least an intent to develop nuclear weapons, both will either support or at least not veto UN Security Council sanctions on Iran in last ditch attempts to derail their nuclear weapons development.

The statement is the hoped-for result of arms specialists in China and Russia examining the evidence on Iran - including thousands of pages found on a laptop computer obtained by the United States last year - and concluding, as the United States, Britain and France have with varying degrees of certainty, that it points at least to an intent to build a weapon.
“If we could get China and Russia to agree that this bears all the hallmarks of a weapons program, it could have an enormous impact on Iran,” said one senior European diplomat, because it might signal that if the issue reaches the Security Council, Iran could not count on Beijing or Moscow blocking action.

Meanwhile, concurrently in Iran, the Guardian Council’s approval of a measure that would block IAEA inspections puts Iran closer to unfettered nuclear development than the US and the EU are to getting Iran referred to the UN Security Council for potential sanctioning.

“If Iran’s nuclear file is referred or reported to the U.N. Security Council, the government will be required to cancel all voluntary measures,” the bill says, meaning Iran would stop allowing in-depth inspections by the IAEA. […]
In May, the Guardian Council ratified a bill compelling the government to continue the nuclear program, including uranium enrichment activities. The law set no timetable, however, allowing the government room to maneuver during negotiations with the European Union.

The United States backed off demands for an Iran referral to the UNSC at an IAEA member board meeting in November in hopes that talks could be resumed.

Both Russia and, to a lesser degree, China have been involved in actively assisting Iran’s nuclear program. It is probable that they both already have more detailed intelligence data in certain areas than Britain and the US. Considering recent developments, including the charge that Iran is training Chechen terrorists in Qom, a change in Russian position may have less to do with provided intelligence than other considerations.

Israel, who Iranian President Ahmadinejad said should be ‘wiped off the map’, reacted to developments with Prime Minister Ariel Sharon stating that a nuclear Iran is unacceptable and that Israel was making preparations for that eventuality, though he stressed that Israel is not taking the lead in confronting Iran’s nuclear ambitions. IDF successfully tested the Arrow TMD system, shooting down a missile similar to Iran’s long-range Shahab-3.

Expressing doubts about the path of diplomatic negotiations with Iran, Israel’s intelligence head, Major-General Aharon Zeevi Farkash, told the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee that time was short according to his intelligence information.

“The efforts of the international community are almost exhausted,” he said. “In this battle, the Iranians have the advantage and the diplomatic track is in danger.”
If the Iranian efforts to enrich uranium for a nuclear device were not halted by the end of March, their program would have passed the point of no return, he added.

December 3, 2005

The Teufelhunden of the 3/6

CAMP AL QAIM, IRAQ: Walk into the battalion headquarters of the 3rd Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment at Camp Al Qaim, and three things will immediately catch your eye. The first is the tribute to the Marines of the 3/6 killed in Iraq. The memorial consists of rifle bayonet-point into the ground, a Marines’ helmet resting on the butt stock, a pair of boots, and the dog tags of five of the members of 3/6 killed in Iraq. The second is unit crest of the 3/6, with the cryptic word “Teufelhunden” inscribed. This is the name the Germans gave the battalion during the battle of Belleau Woods in World War I. Teufelhunden literally means Devil Dogs, which the Marines earned with their ferocity in battle. The third item of note is an inscription taken from a C-ration box by an anonymous Marine at the battle of Khe Sahn in1968, which states “For those who fight for it, life has a flavor the protected never know.”

History is ever present in the Marine Corps, and this is reflected in the Al Qaim region. The “chow hall”, which is famed to be the best in Iraq, is called Winchester Hall, after a Marine killed in combat in Iraq. So is Camp Gannon in Husaybah. Battle Position Hue City honors a battle from the Vietnam War; Battle Position Tarawa is from World War II; Battle Position Beirut honors the Marines lost in the suicide car bombings in Lebanon. The list goes on.

The Commander of the 3/6 is Lieutenant Colonel Dale Alford, who has served as a rifle platoon and company commander of Marines. This tour in Iraq is his sixth combat deployment, with the last being in Afghanistan. His battalion has been instrumental in wresting control of western Iraq from the insurgency.

For LtCol Alford, withdrawal from Iraq is not an option, and would be catastrophic. The calls for withdrawal both encourages the insurgency and has a negative impact on his ability to negotiate with the sheikhs and various tribal leaders, “it empowers the insurgency, they listen to the American media and they listen to our political debates… When I meet with sheikhs, village elders and leaders of the tribes, do they think I am going to follow through with what I promise? They also listen to the American media and wonder who’s going to be around in the long run.”

LtCol Alford has confidence in the ability of the Iraqi Security Forces to maintain control of the security situation in the long run, but emphasizes the importance of well trained infantry and police forces to create a secure environment. Technology such as the Backscatter-Z detection system or Unmanned Aerial Vehicles can only do so much; “they are only tools… this insurgency is going to be won with Marines on the ground and ultimately the Iraqis themselves.”

He has a unique, outside of the box idea to get the Iraqi Army trained up to the proper standards to fight the insurgency on its own. Instead of using the MITT model, where small teams are embedded into Iraqi battalions to provide assistance, he would transplant the staff of a Marine battalion and graft it onto an Iraqi battalion. The staffs would team up, man for man, and act as advisers down to the company level, in the areas where the Iraqi military needs it most: logistics, heavy weapons support and air support. When finished, the embedded staff would leave the equipment behind for the Iraqi Army to carry on the fight.

He believes this would increase the proficiency of the Iraqi Army and reduce the deployment time of large amounts of American troops. This would place the burden of deployment on the professional elements of the Marine Corps, the officers with the rank of Captain and above and the Staff Sergeants and above in the enlisted ranks. A small detachment of officers and NCOs would need to remain home to train the Marines left home, but this would have the effect of accelerating the leadership development of lieutenants, sergeants and corporals. With the combat experience throughout the Corps, this would not be a problem in the short term.

LtCol Alford recognizes there would be much resistance to such a radical change in doctrine. “We need to change the paradigm to win this war” more quickly, says LtCol Alford. “Change will occur at the captain, major and lieutenant colonel level.” Such unorthodox thinking represents the future of 4th Generation Warfare, and the future leaders of our military.

LtCol Alford

LtCol Alford (left), Commander of the 3/6, and
LtCol Starling (right), Operations Officer of RCT-2

December 2, 2005

Turbulence in Palestinian Territories

Israel is threatening to impose sanctions by canceling a customs union between Israel and Gaza after raising concerns that the Palestinian border authorities and their EU observers are allowing Hamas members to enter back into Gaza from Egypt. As many as 15 wanted or expelled terrorists have been allowed back into Gaza through the Rafah Crossing recently, which was confirmed by Palestinian authorities who said there is nothing in the Rafah Crossing agreement that prevents this.

Palestinian security officials acknowledged that wanted men entered Gaza through Rafah, but said anyone with a Palestinian identity card can come into the coastal strip. They said Israel was making demands that are not part of the crossing accord.

Israel disputed this without clarification on the wording and also noted that they are at the mercy of the Egyptians, Palestinians and Europeans monitoring the border crossing.

Israel also has complained that the information it is receiving has been delayed. “Israel will not allow there to be a violation of the agreements as they were reached with Condoleezza Rice,” Gissin said, referring to the Secretary of State who clinched the border deal.

Included among the 15 allowed in that Israel is objecting to are one of the co-founders of Hamas, Ahmed el-Malah, and Hamas leader Mahmoud Zahar’s brother, Fadel Zahar. Both Zahar and el-Malah fled Gaza during the 1980’s and are wanted by Israel on terrorism charges.

In the West Bank, Fatah has cancelled polling for its staggered primaries in Salfit and Qalqiliya due to violence and polling corruption. Armed Palestinians took and burned at least one ballot box and, at other places, kept potential voters from the polls by firing their weapons into the air. There were also disputes within Fatah about candidates, districting and voter eligibility.

Fatah officials in Qalqiliya also canceled voting due to disputes between residents and candidates in surrounding villages. Each group fears voting procedures will favor the other. Despite the cancellation, some people continued to vote in Salfit, even though officials said the results would not be valid. Voting also continued without incident in several surrounding villages, as well as the city of Hebron.

With the staggered primary polling system, the added time to complete the process will only add to the building of frustrations and internal dispute within Fatah. This will simply serve to bolster the already formidable Hamas challenge in the coming elections, who are running on a platform of ‘clean government’ while Fatah is closing polls amid internal disputes and mistrust. Until the primaries draw to a close, it will be more of the same throughout the Palestinian territories.

Add to that the growing tensions over control at the newly-reopened Rafah Crossing and it is clear that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is in trouble. The current turbulence in the Palestinian territories may turn to tremors once the elections draw nearer.

The Ramadi Debacle

AL QAIM, IRAQ: The reported “mini-Tet offensive” in Ramadi has turned out to be less than accurate. In fact, it has been anything but. The Associated Press reported a massive citywide insurgent attack, and Reuters and other news outlets quickly picked up on the story.

Captain Jeffery Pool, Public Affairs Officer for the 2nd Marine Division, disputed the claims in the harshest of terms, and rebuked the media for its mis characterization of events. “Today I witnessed inaccurate reporting, use of unreliable sources, media using other media as sources, an active insurgent propaganda machine, and the pack journalism at its worse.”

Cori Dauber, an Associate Professor of Communication Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, looks at how old Associate Press Television Network footage was used to support the case for the faux “Ramadi Uprising” by all of the news networks, and little has been done to retract the charges.

The AP and other media organizations have bought into a sophisticated and clever al-Qaeda information operation designed to weaken support for the war in the United States and project an image of strength for the insurgency. After al-Qaeda’s defeat along the border, there is a dire need for them to do so.

Operation Shank begins in Ramadi

While the false Ramadi reports continue to filter down, Coalition forces launch the latest offensive in the city. Operation Shank is directed at an unspecified area of the city, and is made up of a battalion-sized assault force “approximately 200 Iraqi Army soldiers from 1st Brigade, 7th Division and 300 Marines from 3rd Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment”.

The Multinational Forces Iraq press release states this is the fifth such operation, but is in fact the sixth, as Operation Mountaineers preceded Operations Panthers, Bruins, Lions and Tigers. Ramadi will be subdued piecemeal. Since operations began in Ramadi, attacks have decreased by sixty percent.

Coalition successes do not come without a heavy price. Outside Fallujah, ten Marines of Regimental Combat Team – 8 were killed and eleven injured while on a foot patrol. The MNF-I press release indicates “the patrol was attacked with an IED fashioned from several large artillery shells”, which makes sense as it is difficult to take such high casualties while patrolling without multiple explosives being employed. Thankfully seven of those wounded were able to immediately return to duty, indicating their wounds were minor. Our thoughts are with the four injured Marines and the families of those ten lost in the attack.

Events in Fallujah show that if you are looking for bad news in Iraq, there is no reason to propagate al-Qaeda propaganda or manufacture news from whole cloth.

December 1, 2005

The Sulemani

HUSAYBAH, IRAQ: Thursday morning started off with strikes at undisclosed locations near the Syrian border against unknown targets. Bombs and gunfire rained from the sky in the early hours during darkness. No information is available about the results of the attack.

I took a trip to Battle Position Hue City for a meeting between the tribal sheikhs of the al-Qaim region, which stretches from Ubaydi to Husaybah. Hue City hosts a Civil Military Operations Center, or CMOC in military parlance, whose purpose is to provide assistance to the residents of Husaybah. The CMOC also serves as a meeting place between the military and civilian representatives.

In attendance at today’s meeting were Colonel Razak, the Commander of the Iraqi regiment operating in western Iraq, Lieutenant Colonel Dale Alford, the Commander of 3rd Battalion, 6th Marines, the mayor pro temp of Husaybah, and the leaders of the tribes of the Albu Malha, Ubaydis, Sulemani, Karabilah and Albu Jagfar. This is the second such meeting of the tribes and the military.

Today’s meeting was the first attended by the Sulemani, the tribe which sided with al-Qaeda and the insurgency over the summer. The meeting I attended last Monday with Lieutenant Oren and the tribal sheikhs was the first face to face contact with the Sulemani and the U.S. Military, and facilitated their attendance at today’s meeting.

Col Razak chaired the meeting, and was a commanding presence. He stressed the importance of Iraqis being in control and “not allowing any stranger to come here… Terrorists come to this town specifically to use you and the people, and only harm innocent people.” One of the greatest fears of the residents of the region is the premature withdrawal of U.S. and Iraqi forces.

But the locations of the Battle Positions in the Al Qaim region is also a matter of concern. The bases often lie on main roads, near mosques or marketplaces, and the residents are inconvenienced by their locations as travel is often restricted due to the checkpoints. LtCol Alford stressed the importance of the residents of the region and the tribal sheikhs taking responsibility for local security, so the bases can be dismantled in the future. “This will not happen overnight… you must build your government up, establish a police force” before the military units move out, said LtCol Alford. “I believe the first group to leave will be U.S. Forces, then the Iraqi Army. But this will not happen without your help.”

The other concerns voiced by the tribal sheihks included repairing a transformer, installing a permanent mayor, resolving a dispute between the pro-government Albu Malha tribe and the Sulemani, and the opening of schools. LtCol Alford again stressed the issue of personal responsibility, and implored the sheikhs to make efforts to open schools using any means possible, while the Civil Affairs Group would immediately provide the supplies needed to run classrooms and would repair damaged schools in the future.

The meeting ended with handshakes between the sheikhs, and Col Razak and LtCol Alford. Various ad hoc side meetings broke out between the sheikhs, members of the Iraqi military and members of the Civil Affairs group.

After the meeting, intelligence received a report of a possible weapons cache in a bombed out house on a rural farm right on the Euphrates River, just north of Husaybah. Staff Sergeant Strong was able to work me into the mission, and I mounted up with a squad from the Weapons Platoon of Lima Company, and a squad of Iraqi troops. We rode through the heart of Husaybah, along the teaming market street, then down a dusty dirt road that ran parallel to the Syrian border, which was about 300 yards west. The line of concertina wire separating Iraq and Syria was clearly visible in the distance.

The U.S. Marines and Iraqi troops turned down a dirt road lined with primitive farming homes, which surprisingly had power and satellite dishes. Scores of children were there to greet us. The Marines and soldiers quickly dismounted to provide security. I asked SSgt Strong his opinion of the Iraqi troops. “This is the best we’ve had. Note how they dismounted quickly and took perimeter security” he said, noting it was done without prompting from the Marines. He is optimistic about their prospects.

Icy, the interpreter from 1st Platoon, joined this mission, and as always jumped right into the fray. He found the corner where the shells were buried, searched for any triggering devices and wires, and personally dug up the cache and pulled out the rounds with his bare hands with the assistance of the Iraqi soldiers. The terp is fearless.

The find was small, 8 rounds total, including one 155mm and six 120mm artillery shells, and one 120mm mortar round. SSgt Strong pointed out the markings on the inside and outside walls that provided clues of the cache. The Iraqi Army soldiers said these rounds were from Iraq, but that often al-Qaeda pays people to smuggle weapons across the border from Syria.

The small weapons cache.

The small weapons cache.

Iraqi Troops and the Cache of Weapons.

Iraqi Troops and the Cache of Weapons.

The Iraqi troops enthusiastically shouldered the rounds and placed them on their truck. As we prepared to leave, the Iraqi children gathered and begged for food, candy and money. A Marine handed out some MREs and other items, and the children were ecstatic. I asked to take their picture, then waded into the crowd to show them the results, much to their delight.

The Neighborhood Kids

The Neighborhood Kids.

We mounted up and drove to an empty field about 100 yards from the Syrian border, and engineers arrived to rig the rounds to explode. Our Humvee drove off about 600 yards to block the road and prevent Iraqis heading to the market from getting hurt. Good thing, the explosion sent one of the rounds in our direction. It clanged off a metal telephone pole and landed about ten yards from the Hummer.

We returned to Hue City, and I caught a convoy to Camp al-Qaim. The convoy was quite large, as we stopped at Battle Position Tarawa to pick up more vehicles heading to camp. We snaked along the river road through Husaybah, Karabilah and crossed the “Emerald Wadi”, named for the green vegetation growing in the dry riverbed, into Sadah, before heading south into the desert. An uneventful ride of one hour in a region where, according to the driver, a drive from Husaybah to Camp al-Qaim took six hours not that long ago due to security problems on the road.

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