October 7, 2004
Where We StandBy Douglas Hanson
Part I: The tactical fight for Iraq
Operations in Iraq are again taking center stage in both the legacy and new media outlets. Understandably, supporters of the war and President Bush worry about the ultimate outcome and his desire to remain steadfast (he will) in the face of a concerted attack by the left, and a seeming lack of progress on the battlefield. Other analysts and media pundits on the right raise valid points about the conduct of the war from a regional standpoint. Some are concerned about the President's strategy, although their worries are actually directed at the wrong level of warfare, since President Bush and his national security advisors have never deviated from their strategic objectives, however inadequately communicated to the American people. But for now, the unit—level battles need to be examined in light of a continuing misrepresentation by the mainstream media about the status of the fight in Iraq.
At the tactical level, the old media touts a rise in the so—called 'insurgency' in Iraq, even quoting as fact the estimated number of insurgents as around 20,000. What Jim Krane of the AP neglects to tell us about this figure is that it comes from an estimate developed by EU intelligence agencies. Other disputable 'facts' abound in this propaganda piece, but what must be made clear to the American people is the true nature of the enemy in Iraq, and how effectively our forces are in dealing with them. The truth about our adversaries has been virtually ignored by the legacy media, since it refutes the standard leftist mantra of a popular uprising against the US 'aggressors' —— a complex Vietnam War scenario. Of a more immediate concern is how our forces are coping with this enemy in achieving our objective of a secure Iraq, in order to allow democracy to flourish there.
On October 1, the Department of Defense announced that major offensive operations were being conducted in the Sunni Triangle city of Samarra. The report stated that about 1000 Iraqi National Guard and Iraqi Army troops, backed up by units from the US 1st Infantry Division, attacked into the town destroy a continuing 'insurgent' presence that had frequently tangled with 1st Infantry Division patrols.
Just last week, terrorists attacked a patrol from the 1st Infantry Division with small arms and mortar fire from a mosque in the center of town. The Soldiers did not return fire, but had earlier come under attack from other buildings in Samarra and responded with direct fire, attack helicopters and air strikes. It was all—too—typical that anti—Iraqi Forces claimed that mosques are holy places, yet continued to conduct combat operations using these 'holy sites' as a base of operations. However, this problem was solved when the 36th Iraqi Commando Battalion seized the Golden Mosque on October 1 and captured 25 prisoners and assorted weapons.
At face value, the operation to secure Samarra would seem to simply be a belated response to the continued terrorist sniping at Coalition and Iraqi units. But a closer examination of recent engagements in the Sunni Triangle, especially when placed in the larger context of the recent Iraqi and Coalition victory in Najaf, reveals a deliberate country—wide squeeze play to finally put down both the Iranian and Syrian rat lines in Iraq. Obviously, analysis of the conduct of Coalition operations, and the intelligence they are based on, is an educated guess at best. But events over the last several months do point to some reasonable conclusions.
To understand Coalition and Iraqi Army operations today, we must go back to February of this year, when a letter was seized from an alleged Al Qaeda courier, who said that the author was terrorist chief Abu Musab al—Zarqawi. Of course, Zarqawi is now the most wanted man in the Iraq. Probably drafted in January, the letter essentially admits that the chances of forcing the US out of Iraq are slim to none. Zarqawi concludes,
"So the solution, and only God knows, is that we need to bring the Shia into the battle." It is the only way to prolong the duration of the fight between the infidels and us. If we succeed in dragging them into a sectarian war, this will awaken the sleepy Sunnis who are fearful of destruction and death at the hands" [of Shiites].
Therefore, Zarqawi's terrorists and the Baathist die—hards in the Sunni Triangle would constitute only part of the problem for the Coalition, if Zarqawi's plan was brought to fruition. But, Zarqawi and Saddam's remaining cronies were somewhat stumped as to how to bring the Shias into the fight without being able to adequately coordinate and support the operation outside of the Triangle, or to communicate with the Shia to the south.
Thankfully for them, the Iranians were only too happy to help solve their problem by supplying money, advisors, and training to the so—called Mahdi Militia of the renegade Shia leader Muqtada al—Sadr. Also, the Sunni Triangle's eastern—most apex and the seat of Sadr's political power in Sadr City converged in the urban sprawl of Baghdad. Some modicum of coordination could now be achieved.
In spite of assistance from the Iranians, Sadr's thugs were a little late out of the starting gate as compared to their allies in central Iraq with their first attacks in Sadr City and Najaf occurring in late April and May of 2004. However, CJTF—7 turned around the re—deploying US 1st Armored Division, and had it march back to the Najaf area to counter—attack Sadr's forces. The 1st AD conducted a brilliant campaign that will go down in history as the ultimate 'how—to' for a heavy tank—infantry combined arms team taking on irregulars in an urban environment. US forces killed thousands of Sadr's men and had advanced to within a stone's throw of the Imam Ali Mosque. For whatever reason, 1st AD's attack was halted short of the final objective.
By the time the 1st AD was wrapping up offensive operations in Najaf, the Marines had already been ordered to halt offensive operations in Fallujah, but had cornered Zarqawi's terrorists and Hussein loyalists in a small area of town. In one of the more controversial moves of the war, the commander of the I Marine Expeditionary Force (MEF) established the Fallujah Brigade around a cadre of Baathist Saddam Hussein loyalists.
This seemed to be a quid pro quo to the politicos for halting a very successful attack on the verge of completely retaking Fallujah. The military had always held the position that it was much preferable to maintain some of the Baathist infrastructure, especially in Saddam's defeated army, so that the rank and file could be controlled and gainfully employed. Others, most notably Ambassador Paul Bremer, felt this tactic was a recipe for disaster. Regardless of which theory one adhered to, the establishment of the Fallujah Brigade raised some basic questions, not only about the strategic objectives of the war, but more pointedly, about the military leadership and the overall synchronization of military operations exclusive of any political considerations.
A basic issue was that the commander of I MEF had a boss. At the time it was Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, and then, in May, it became Army four—star General George Casey. So, who authorized the formation of this brigade and why? And, what were the expected benefits to the Coalition and the security of Iraq? Ultimately, the Marines disbanded the brigade in early September and officially pronounced this grand experiment had failed. It appears that Sadr's thugs and the Sunni Baathist loyalists weren't the only ones having problems coordinating operations between central and southern Iraq.
In the following months, Zarqawi's terrorists and the Fallujah Brigade slowly but surely returned the city to its pre—liberation status. Sunni Baathists and terrorists controlled Fallujah with an iron fist, with Marines viewing it as a 'no—go' town while establishing a cordon around the perimeter of the city. There was an uneasy quiet for months in the Triangle save for an occasional Coalition air strike. However, in the south, Sadr's Mahdi Militia commenced attacks in early August on Iraqi police stations in both Najaf and Baghdad's Sadr City, triggering another large response from the Coalition, and this time they were accompanied by Iraqi security forces.
Throughout August and early September, US Marines, with two attached task forces from the 1st Cavalry Division, and accompanied by Iraqi security forces and Iraqi National Guard units, conducted another brilliant fight. On the first day alone, over 300 of Sadr's men were killed with an undetermined number of wounded. Again, the Coalition was halted when they were within 200 meters of seizing the Imam Ali Mosque. Iraqi interim Prime Minister Allawi wanted to negotiate a truce with Sadr, and sent his Defense Minister, Hazim Shalan, as his representative. On this first attempt, no deal was reached, so Allawi actually authorized Coalition and Iraqi forces to resume offensive operations within a 48 hour window. Why our forces did not take advantage of Allawi's opening remains unclear.
As events unfolded, further negotiations were successful in brokering a cease—fire, and later, what was hoped, would be a permanent peace deal. Mookie fled to Sadr City, Iraqi security forces took control of Najaf's holy sites, and reconstruction efforts proceeded anew. Actually, rebuilding had already been underway while the battle was ongoing, in the remainder of the city that was outside of the 200 meter exclusionary zone. It had been another stunning victory for the Coalition forces, and this time, for the fledgling Iraqi police force and the Iraqi National Guard. The Mahdi militia had been smashed not only in Najaf, but also in places such as Kufa, Kut, and Al—Hillah. But there were two other extremely significant outcomes of this battle, other than the obvious military defeat of Sadr's thugs.
First, while the legacy media, including Fox News was up to its eyeballs in hurricane coverage, completely unnoticed was that MNF—I and CENTCOM had finally realized exactly who it was we were fighting. When Iraqi and Coalition forces moved into the area around the mosque in Najaf they beheld a scene from hell. At last count, bodies were discovered indicating that a little under 200 innocents had been tortured, mutilated, and killed — simply for not supporting Sadr and his band of criminals.
And, criminals are precisely what they were. US and Iraqi intelligence finally had concrete evidence that most of the so—called 'militia' were convicts released from prison just prior to the start of Operation Iraqi Freedom last year. Iranian currency and evidence of Iranian advisors were also found. Not only did the Marines and Soldiers grasp the obvious, but so did the average Iraqi living around Najaf. A large number of volunteers from the tribal areas, signed up with the Najaf police chief to help drive out Mookie's thugs.
Always slow on the uptake as compared to frontline units, it finally dawned on the military hierarchy that a massive uprising was never a high probability given the true makeup of the enemy. Things were looking up from a freedom of action standpoint; in other words, the march to victory would be intensified, despite the cries from the AP's Arab writers about a 'burgeoning insurgency.'
The other significant outcome of the battle was that now Sadr and the remainder of his fighters were isolated in Sadr City and suffering daily attacks from the 1st Cavalry Division and precision air strikes. The southern prong of the Shia—Sunni alliance had been, as Colin Powell would say, 'cut off and killed' in a masterful series of joint Iraqi—Coalition operations.
And despite pronouncements from the hand—wringing left about a 'rising insurgency' in the general populace, an outstanding casualty analysis from our friends at The Belmont Club clearly showed that the lion's share of Coalition and Iraqi casualties was located generally where they have always been: Sadr City, Najaf, and the Sunni Triangle. Meanwhile, conditions were being set to isolate and to eventually subdue the Sunni Triangle.
In one of the most innovative uses of military technology to date, the Coalition has been using unmanned aerial vehicles and precision air strikes in and around Fallujah over a period of several weeks, to conduct a war of attrition against Zarqawi's terrorists and Baathist holdouts. The big advantage of course, is that the bad guys suffer casualties, while we only lose JDAMs and iron bombs from our inventory. But now on to the main event.
To gain an appreciation of Coalition operations, one must understand the lay of the land. Starting from the western apex, the Sunni Triangle generally goes from Ar—Ramadi up to the northeast to Saddam's hometown of Tikrit, then southeast to the Baghdad area. The long base of the triangle then runs along the major highway from Baghdad back to the west of Ar—Ramadi. The city of Fallujah lies along this major highway, and the military value of cutting off this major avenue of approach to Coalition forces and civilian commerce to western Iraq was not lost on Zarqawi and Hussein loyalists.
In addition to regular air strikes, Coalition and Iraqi ground forces have been conducting a deliberate (some say, too slow) campaign to prepare the Triangle for the coup de main. As early as 23 July, we know the 1st Infantry Division conducted a successful effort in stabilizing Saddam's own hometown of Tikrit. Ignored by the legacy media, the 1st Battalion, 18th Infantry Regiment stabilized this center of resistance by conducting a combination of hard—hitting targeted raids and rebuilding operations. In addition, the local Iraqi National Guard units had improved substantially since their initial poor showing in April. As the roll—back of the Sunni Triangle commenced, it's no wonder that Fallujah continued to present problems to the Coalition and the Iraqi security forces. If Saddam's own hometown is peaceful, where else could the terrorists go?
As the second fight for Najaf was culminating at the end of August, the 3d Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment was conducting a series of operations with Iraqi Special Forces in the Fallujah area. The battalion conducted a large cordon and search operation to further isolate the city. The concept involved putting Iraqi Special Forces on point to gather intelligence from the locals, allowing the Marines to mass combat power where required. Of course, this was another instance of a trailblazing joint operation that the legacy media ignored. In any event, it was clear that the town would eventually be the next candidate for the tried and true tactic of isolate and reduce.
About ten days later, Marine forces continued to prepare the battlefield by destroying engineering equipment used by anti—Iraqi forces to construct fighting positions around the city of Fallujah. It was also significant that the Marines set the stage in the political arena by stating that the continued fortification of the town contradicts the authority of the Iraqi government.
Then on September 18, in addition to Fallujah being the recipient precision air strikes, Operation Hurricane II kicked off when Soldiers and Marines from the 2d Brigade Combat Team and the 1st Marine Division attacked into Ar—Ramadi to disrupt yet another newly identified terrorist cell in the area. Operations against the Daham terrorist network actually began September 16 with Operation Hurricane I, and both were planned as clearing operations to search and to confiscate illegal weapons and ammunition caches. An increase of activity on the ground in Ar—Ramadi in the west, coinciding with the air strikes and ground operations in Fallujah in the center, signaled the continuing effort to isolate the Sunni Triangle.
Finally, On October 1, CENTCOM reported that the 202nd Iraqi National Guard Battalion, 7th Iraqi Army Battalion, and 1st Infantry Division attacked into Samarra,
in order to facilitate orderly government processes, kill or capture anti—Iraqi forces, and set the conditions to proceed with infrastructure and quality of life improvements for the people of Samarra.
Unimpeded access throughout the city for Iraqi Security Forces and Multi—National Forces is non—negotiable.
And for those who have downplayed the possible participation of foreign terrorists in this so—called insurgency, the World Tribune reports that,
The U.S. military has established that Al Qaida—aligned insurgents from North Africa have played a leading role in the Sunni insurgency in Iraq.
Officials said about half of the insurgents captured in Samara last week were nationals from Arab states in North Africa. They said an initial interrogation has determined that the insurgents arrived from such countries as Egypt, Sudan and Tunisia.
In addition to returning Samarra to the control of the people through the legally established city council, the successful operation has further squeezed the triangle from the north, while eliminating the threat to the major highway that runs from Baghdad to the Kurdish areas of Iraq. If the previous campaign in Najaf is any indication, the culmination of the Sunni Triangle squeeze play with an attack into Fallujah should come soon. In fact, reports in the last few days state that air strikes against targets in Fallujah are increasing in intensity and frequency.
Critics say the fight for Iraq has been too slow, too lock—step, and too restrained. They are only half—right. At the tactical level, once given the word, Coalition, and now Iraqi units attack swiftly and finish rapidly in an urban maze—like fortress, fighting against fanatical Islamist extremists who, more often than not, are hopped up on barbiturates and amphetamines.
However, the critics may have some valid points when the fight at the country and theater level is examined. The seemingly independent authority of the I MEF Commander when he set up the Baathist controlled Fallujah Brigade is just one example. Yet, as the Sunni Triangle operation comes to a climax, it is interesting to note how the Fallujah Brigade may have possibly aided the campaign by gathering all of the Baathist eggs in one basket.
Judging a complex politico—military struggle at the theater level presents even more dangers than evaluating the tactical battles. However, I'll put my two cents worth in Part II soon to be published in a future issue of The American Thinker.
Douglas Hanson is our military affairs correspondent