All the sound and fury of Operation Restoring Rights notwithstanding, the US-Iraq military offensive to root terrorists out of the northern Iraqi town of Tal Afar was a fairly modest affair.
The operation kicked off Friday, September 9 with some 12,000 troops – 4,000 Americans and 8,000 Iraqi soldiers and special police, most members of the Shiite Badr and Wolves Brigades. It ended Tuesday, September 13. Despite the television footage depicting fighter jets and helicopters swooping on targets, what happened on the ground was essentially simple: Shiite Turkomen militia officers led the US and Iraqi assault troops to the hideouts of guerrilla fighters and terrorists and, when they were lined up outside the houses, identified them one by one.
The method, while a useful short cut, was not foolproof.
The Turkomen officers carefully selected the enemy they chose to betray to the US-Iraqi force: only the Arab fighters who had infiltrated from Syria and al Qaeda adherents, particularly the followers of Abu Musab al Zarqawi. But they did not give away the insurgent elements made up of Turkomen independent guerilla groups linked to Iranian military and intelligence cells, or the Turkomen guerrillas who infiltrated from Iran.
Quite often, American troops came upon sanctuaries that appeared to have been hurriedly evacuated by occupants, their IDs and other articles strewn about in disarray. This gave rise to a strong suspicion that their Turkomen guides had forewarned their compatriots in time for them to get away ahead of capture.
To put a stop this flight, Iraq ordered the Iraq-Syrian sealed near the battle arena Sunday Sept. 11. But it was too late. The birds had flown across to Syria.
Too many got away
The result was a distinct disparity in numbers between the 1,000 fighters the Americans were led in prior briefings to expect to find, and the 200 foreign Arab fighters they actually found and picked up.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s military sources in Iraq give the Tal Afar offensive a fairly low grade as a significant breakthrough operation – both for the Americans and for al Qaeda. Tel Afar’s only claim to strategic importance rests on its being a convenient wayside station – although not the only one – for incoming anti-American fighters entering from Syria. Al Qaeda made good use of the local population’s centuries-long calling as smugglers of weapons and drugs from the Caspian region via Iran to Iraq and on to Syria, Lebanon and Turkey.
But because Tal Afar was more a safe haven for guerrilla fighters than a base of operations, its role in the anti-American, anti-government campaign was minor. Therefore, Operation Restoring Rights only marginally affected that campaign.
Zarqawi has located his northern Iraq bases of operations in Mosul, Haditha, Hasbayah and al Qaim – all south of Tal Afar. His supply lines do not depend on Tal Afar either. They run through al Qaim province and down the Euphrates River, which the Americans have long tried unsuccessfully to block.
But all three players in the Tal Afar operation exploited it for long-term political capital that would determine if and when the Iraq war blew up into a sectarian conflict whose flames could ignite other parts of the Middle East.
For the Bush administration and the American command in Iraq, the offensive was the first large-scale field test of collaboration between US and Iraqi Shiite forces in combat against Sunni guerrillas.
Americans will start working with more Shiite elements
It took place a year after the US military-Kurdish commando joint venture that defeated the renegade Shiite cleric Moqtada Sadr‘s Mehdi Army revolt in Najef, Karbala and Baghdad’s Sadr City.
Since then, the Mehdi Army has been fairly quiescent. But the Kurdish commanders were encouraged by that experience to trust in their ability to build a new and modern Kurdish national army to support Kurdistan’s march towards independence.
The relative success of the Tal Afar operation could similarly put ideas in Shiite heads and speed up the formation of an Iraqi Shiite army.
This was also the first time American commanders relied on Shiite intelligence for a combat engagement. Until now, they only trusted Kurdish intelligence. This first experiment was important, because the military-political collaboration with Shiite leaders – especially prime minister Jaafari, whom Washington regards as pro-Iranian – paves the way for the Americans to work with many other Shiite Iraqi elements shunned hitherto.
These critical developments were not lost on al Qaeda leader Zarqawi.
They have impacted his effort, thus far ineffectual, to inflame sectarian war in Iraq by filling Shiite streets with rivers of civilian blood – as will be shown in the next article.