Two fuel tanker suicide attacks by al Qaeda on Tuesday, Aug. 14, threaten to turn the tide of the Iraq war and reverse the fortunes of the US security “surge” campaign launched earlier this year.
For the first time since the Americans killed al Qaeda’s notorious Iraq chief Abu Musab al Zarqawi in June 2006, the jihadist organization has regained the initiative in the conflict. It has shown itself capable of multiple, synchronized operations on several fronts and of procuring precise intelligence. Most of all, al Qaeda displayed a high order of innovative strategic thinking by the side of appalling savagery.
Al Qaeda struck hours after 16,000 US and Iraqi troops launched their Lightning Hammer offensive in the troubled Diyala Province north of Baghdad. The offensive’s objective: to liquidate Sunni Arab and al Qaeda infestations in the area between the provincial capital Baqouba and Balad.
This was to be accomplished by –
1. Purging the northern approaches to Baghdad and surrounding districts to open up the main routes linking Baghdad to Kurdistan in the north, including Mosul, and making them safe for travel.
2. Breaking up the Sunni and al Qaeda cells which had spread out on both sides of the Euphrates Valley and were using the river and its tributaries for transferring weapons and fighters into Baghdad. To clean up the river banks, US and Iraqi troops needed to take control of the towns of Sab, al Kalis, Zunbur, Bani Sad and Balad.
3. Using the Kurdish units deployed on the outskirts of their region as a barrier between Kurdistan and Baghdad in order to block off the Sunni-al Qaeda routes of retreat to the north.
The objectives of the offensive were laid out by Col. David Sutherland, US commander of security forces in Diyala.
“The goal is to expand the clearance of Baqouba and get the provincial and local-level governments up and going.”
Snapping the jaws of the trap on al Qaeda
He outlined another key objective.
This time, elements of al Qaeda would not be allowed to flee and establish themselves in new havens for making trouble elsewhere. Those who were not captured or killed in Operation Arrowhead Ripper in June and July would not be allowed to flee east of the city. They were to be trapped ahead of Lightning Hammer and then knocked over or captured where they stood.
The operation began with the armored 1st Calvary’s 3rd Brigade driving down from the Hamrin Lake area, 50 km northeast of Baqouba; members of the 82nd Airborne 5th Squadron, 73rd Cavalry Regiment were lifted in by helicopter from the Baqouba area. Artillery regiments began pounding insurgents’ escape routes and 500-pound bombs were dropped by Air Force fighters.
This maneuver was designed as a pincer movement to corner and wipe out al Qaeda’s lairs.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s military sources report that soon after the operation began, US commanders were chagrined to discover a foe which was not only prepared in advance but armed with prior intelligence, presumably from moles planted in Iraqi forces.
The result was unfortunate.
Instead of having their own escape route north severed by the US-Iraqi force, an al Qaeda suicide bomber blew up an oil tanker truck on the strategic Thiraa Dijla bridge in Taiji, destroying the span and plunging cars into the waters below. At least 10 people were killed and six more are missing.
By this one explosion, al Qaeda destroyed the vital strategic transport route for bringing supplies and reinforcements to American forces from the north. They also disarmed the trap the US offensive planned to snap shut on them by closing the route north against American pursuit. Al Qaeda and the Sunni insurgents were able to make their way north to safety in an organized fashion by river and byways.
Furthermore, on Day One of Lightning Hammer, US and Iraqi forces found the hideouts of al Qaeda cells deserted, indicating that al Qaeda had procured the list of targets drawn up by allied intelligence in time to escape.
A few hours later, on that fateful Tuesday, al Qaeda struck again with extraordinary savagery even for them. The ubiquitous oil tanker trucks – four of them – were used to massacre at least 400 members of the tiny minority Kurdish Yazidi communities of Qataniya and Adnaniya near Mosul.
Al Qaeda turns the tables, proves it can drive a community out of Iraq
The Kurdish Yazidis, numbering around 150,000, have suffered persecution at the hands of both Sunni and Shiite Muslims. Most live in Iraqi Kurdistan, although some are to be found in Syria and the Caucasus. Their doctrine is an amalgam of pagan, Sabean, Shamanistic, Manichean, Zoroastrian, Jewish, Christian and Islamic elements. They believe in a supreme deity, but not in evil, sin, hell or the devil. Yazidis hold that divine laws can be expiated by metempsychosis (the transfer of the soul from one body to another). Their supreme divinity is Malak Taus (the Peacock Angel), one of the seven angels who ruled the universe after its creation by God.
For the radical Sunni al Qaeda, the Yazidis were a soft target especially since this tiny community welcomed the American invasion. By their brutal attack the jihadists attained several objectives:
One: They showed American and Iraqi generals that their pursuit of al Qaeda in one part of Iraq would only elicit a harsh response in another.
Two: They warned the Kurds that if they persist in taking over the Sinjar Mountain where the Yazidis dwelt, between Mosul and the Syrian border, and blocking al Qaeda’s access to the influx of fighters and weapons (See DEBKA-Net-Weekly 313 of Aug. 10: …Kurdish Barzani Extended Control of the North), al Qaeda would turn Kurdish towns into Baghdad No. 2.
Three: By blowing up the Thiraa Dijla bridge in Taiji and the Yazidi villages on Mt. Sinjar, al Qaeda squeezed the Kurds into a tough choice between directly confronting the terrorists or leaving their options open and retaining their freedom of action in the western and northern regions around Mosul – for the time being.
Kurdistani president Massoud Barzani and his military and intelligence advisers, on the principle that prudence is the better form of valor, are inclined to avoid a face-to-face conflict with al Qaeda at this stage. They are also taking into consideration that Irbil is the only town in the autonomous region adequately protected against major terrorist attacks. A deep 95-km long channel runs around its perimeter, interrupted by a few well-guarded bridges manned by peshmerga militiamen, who screen every vehicle and pedestrian seeking to enter the town. All the rest, including Suleimaniyeh, are vulnerable to suicide bombers.
Four: Al Qaeda proved itself capable of driving a complete community out of Iraq. Since the massacre they suffered, the Yazidis have been in flight to Syria.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s military sources note that Operation Lightning Hammer, the largest in scale carried out by US and Iraqi forces outside Baghdad in the framework of the new American security plan, has laid bare the limitations and short-term nature of American military successes in the war on al Qaeda in Anbar and Baghdad. These operations have not stifled the jihadist terrorists’ capabilities in eastern, central and northern Iraq.
For this reason, most of the American generals serving in Iraq consider the recommendations which their commander, Gen. David Petraeus, will reportedly put before congress next month to pull American forces out of parts of Iraq, including Anbar, would be premature.