Early US-Iraqi Crackdown in Baghdad Finds Targets Hard to Pin Down

During a flying visit to Baghdad Saturday, Feb. 17, Condoleezza Rice said the US-Iraqi security operation had “got off to a good start.” But what was really important, she said is” how the Iraqis use the breathing space it might provide.”
She talked to US commanders and Iraqi prime minister Nouri al-Maliki, just after his really upbeat video conversation with President George W. Bush on Friday, Feb. 16. He said, prematurely, as it turned out, that the first steps of the new security plan had achieved “a fabulous success.”
The US military spokesman in Baghdad Lt. Col. Chris Carver was more guarded than either. “We’ve just started to focus our operations,” he said. “We have months to go to see if we are going to succeed or not.”
He proved to be the more realistic. No sooner was the US Secretary out of Baghdad on route to Jerusalem when the unbridled carnage resumed – close to 100 dead in three days, four of them US soldiers who were killed in combat against insurgents, at least 10 Iraqi security officers and dozens of Shiite civilians.
Clearly, Sunni insurgents and al Qaeda are also on the offensive.
Monday, Feb. 19, two suicide bombers blew themselves up in Ramadi, the capital of rebellious Anbar province, outside the house of Abdul Setar Abu Risha, a tribal chief leading the war on al Qaeda. They killed 5 police officers and six civilians.
Six features stand out in the initial phase of the US-Iraqi security operation, say debkafile‘s military experts – none of them encouraging:
1. For more than three weeks, concentrated Iraqi and US forces have been fighting conjoined Iraqi Sunni insurgents and al Qaeda back and forth in their Baghdad strongholds on Haifa Street without either side prevailing.
2. The insurgent-al Qaeda fighters are sustained by their ability to spirit troops to safety outside Baghdad and smuggle fresh reinforcements into the arena. This means that a key element of the security operation, the US-Kurdish-Iraqi encirclement to seal off Baghdad – precisely to prevent this – is not working as it should.
A “combat outpost,” one of the links in the encirclement of outer Baghdad, was directly attacked for the first time in a coordinated insurgent operation Monday, Feb. 19, killing two US soldiers killed and injuring another seventeen.
3. The division of labor between US and Iraq forces fighting al Qaeda strongholds on Haifa Street works like this: The Americans soften up the targets, who are usually holed up in house basements, by pummeling them from fighter planes, assault helicopters, tanks and artillery. US marines then move in for the first assault. When they are close to subduing the enemy, the waiting Iraqi units are sent in to finish them off.
However, the Iraqi troops, instead of going in for the kill and victory, often let the Sunni insurgents and al Qaeda get away, debkafile‘s military sources report. This is another weak point of the crackdown and an element in the target’s ability to hold out.
4. The second major target, the Shiite Mehdi Army militia, whose death squads have spearheaded the sectarian war, has gone to ground. Its officers have retreated to the Shiite holy cities of Najef and Karbela, while the top commanders have crossed over into Iran, out of the way of the showdown promised by US forces.
Thus have two primary targets of President George W. Bush’s new Iraq strategy eluded the major US-Iraqi cleanout operation for Baghdad – thus far.
The Shiite militiamen will no doubt be back after the Baghdad operation is over and done with and the extra US troops supporting it withdrawn.
5. Iraq’s borders with Syria and Iran were closed for only three days, since when war materiel and fighters are again flowing through unhindered. American officials are willing now for the first time in four years to bluntly accuse Iraq’s two neighbors of actively fueling the Iraq war. But words are all that has come out of Washington. There is no sign of any American military plan to effectively cut off this traffic or strike at its sources, the active logistical bases across the two borders.
6. debkafile‘s military sources report that al Qaeda is still rampant in Ramadi and other parts of Anbar province in the west. Al Qaeda has collected itself since suffering the loss of its Iraq commander, Abu Musab al Zarqawi, last year. The jihadis again dominate the province, as they did when he was alive.

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