Baghdad Battle No. 2 Has Begun
Joint US-Iraqi forces were deep into their biggest operation ever to subdue the Iraqi capital forty-eight hours before US president George W. Bush formally unveiled his new Iraq plan on Wednesday Jan. 10. The operation started out against “terrorist hideouts” in and around the Sunni stronghold of Haifa Street. Some 50 insurgents and jihadists were reported killed while fighting back with mortar and rocket-propelled grenade fire. “A great number of Arab nationals,” many of them Syrians, were detained, according to the Iraqi government.
The second battle in four years for Baghdad, a city of nine million inhabitants, places American armed forces in active combat on three anti-al Qaeda fronts: Iraq, Somalia and Afghanistan.
debkafile‘s military sources report that in Baghdad, one US brigade is fighting alongside two Iraqi brigades, supported by tanks, warplanes and helicopters. Their mission is to purge and control Haifa Street, which is situated near the Green Zone government-US command center along the southern bank of the Tigris River which cuts through the town center. The street has been a major source of Sunni and al Qaeda terrorist violence since its former inhabitants, mostly Palestinians, were driven out.
The US-Iraqi mission includes taking over two important Tigris bridges, Tamuz and Jumhuriya, and three smaller ones in between.
These bridges, which link the northern and southern Baghdad districts, have been under Sunni-al Qaeda guns, and US and Iraqi military vehicles have drive across at their peril.
Despite heavy losses, the Baathist Sunni insurgents and al Qaeda are putting up heavy resistance; the battle is still at its outset. Large groups of buildings are occupied by fresh, heavily armed fighters and will have to be flushed out one by one. After this is done, the US-Iraq military force must proceed to three further missions in the operation to cleanse, hold and stabilize Baghdad.
debkafile‘s exclusive military sources describe those missions:
1. Once Haifa Street is purged, large-scale US and Iraqi forces will throw a steel ring around Baghdad in an effort to seal it off from the rest of Iraq, block its roads and entrances to incoming insurgent reinforcements and cut off their routes of escape.
2. Another force will head into the Shiite districts of Sadr City and Azamiyah, strongholds of the radical cleric Moqtada Sadr’s Mehdi Army militia, whose loyalists are riding high after taking charge of the Saddam Hussein execution on Dec. 30.
3. A third force will head south to Sunni insurgent bastions in the Baghdad district of Dura.
The Iraqi-US campaign to cleanse the Iraqi capital of militias, death squads, terrorists and insurgents and provide a measure of stability will in the process reduce much of Baghdad to a war zone for the foreseeable future.
A big question mark hangs over Moqtada Sadr’s intentions. There is no knowing yet whether he will order his militiamen to forcibly block US-Iraqi force’s ingress to the Shiite suburbs or pull them back to avoid a frontal clash. The Americans hope the fiery cleric will recall his disastrous experiences three years ago, when the Medhi Army’s first encounter with US forces backed by Kurdish commandos ended in the rogue Shiite force being uprooted from the Shiite shrine cities south of Baghdad and Sadr being sent packing with his army to desperately seek refuge.
Today, the Mehdi Army militia is much bigger than the one which was routed three years ago, and is also better organized and equipped.
Its commander is expected by US commanders to be swayed in his decision on whether to stand up or stand aside by two main factors.
First, Sadr will be influenced by the outcome of the Haifa Street battle and how long it takes. He will want to see if the combined US-Iraqi force achieves control over the Tigris bridges. This would enable them to move troops and reinforcements rapidly and safely back and forth between southern Baghdad and the north, and free up the bulk of their military strength for operations against his militia.
Second, before taking on the combined Iraqi-US strength, the radical Shiite leader will want clear guarantees from Tehran for a steady supply of military assistance should the engagement be protracted. He will tax the officers of the Revolutionary Guards al Quds battalion attached to the Medhi Army’s command in Baghdad with this errand. Such guarantees would be bad news for the US-Iraq campaign to stabilize Baghdad because it could lengthen hostilities.
Given these imponderables, debkafile‘s military sources estimate that the second battle for Baghdad will take at least two or three months, if not longer.
This estimate matches President Bush’s most probable timeline for the dispatch of another 20,000 US troops to Baghdad and the need to spread the “surge” over several months until early April, 2007.