US Iraq commander Gen. David Petraeus said Tuesday, June 19, that stabilizing Iraq could take as long as a decade. As to the prospects of the Operation Arrowhead Ripper in launched in Diyala province northeast of Baghdad Tuesday, June 19, the general said frankly: “The fact is that as we go on the offensive, the enemy is going to respond.”
But when he referred to US-Iraqi military successes against al Qaeda sanctuaries in the Western province of Anbar, he spoke of a “stunning reversal.”
Four months after Operation Fardh al-Qanoon (FAQ) was launched, the picture coming in from DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s Iraq sources is far from sanguine. And judiciously mixed assessments of the prospects of success run through the Stability and Security in Iraq Survey the Pentagon submitted to the US Congress this week (in accordance with the Department of Defense Appropriations Act 2007.)
Operation Fardh al-Qanoon (FAQ) was launched on Feb. 14, 2007, as the main security component of The New Way Forward. Its objects were to provide security primarily in Baghdad and contain the sectarian violence.
To this end, President George W. Bush authorized his controversial troop surge to meet the requirements of US generals in Iraq. The five US Brigade Combat Teams and support forces in the country were boosted by 30,000 troops, the last contingent of which was put in place in June.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s Iraqi military sources note: In the intervening months from February, the situation on the ground has reversed itself and forced US generals to reshuffle their objectives; al Qaeda has become Operation FAQ’s prime objective, partially displacing its initial priorities.
To avoid admitting this, US officials are playing up the level of cooperation US and Iraqi forces have won from Sunni tribal and insurgent groups for operations to root out al Qaeda havens, especially in the restive Anbar province.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s military sources add that success here is far from comprehensive: Some elements of the Sunni Islamic Army, Iraqi Muslim Brethren and 1920 Revolution Battalions insurgent groups have indeed thrown their support behind US-Iraqi military operations, but other factions of the same groups have not.
Sectarian violence is down, but not overall violence
It must be said that those Sunni groups who are cooperating in the war on al Qaeda are willing to fight to the finish. Some of their commanders and fighters have recently gone on Saudi radio and television to declare fervently that they regard their adopted cause as a matter of life and death.
Al Qaeda in Iraq has not missed a step over these defections and has taken deterrent action.
On June 10, its military command slapped down an ultimatum giving its former Sunni associates 72 hours to withdraw their support from US-Iraqi operations or face a general al Qaeda onslaught in Baghdad, Baqouba and other places.
The jihadists are high enough on self-assurance and bellicosity to go ahead with logistical preparations – under the theological sanction of their imams – for a major offensive against the Sunni insurgents who have gone over to the US-Iraq side.
(More about al Qaeda’s decision to go to war on the Muslim Brotherhood’s global networks in a separate article in this issue).
Al Qaeda has also managed to keep up the level of violence and casualties in Iraq and is seriously offsetting US military efforts, as the Pentagon report to Congress points out:
The overall level of violence in Iraq this quarter March-May and first half of June remained similar to the previous periods but shifted location. Insurgents and extremists are unable to operate as freely in Baghdad because of FAQ-Operation Fardh al-Qanoon, and in Anbar Province because of growing tribal opposition to Al Qaeda. Accordingly, many insurgents and extremists have moved operations to Diyala, Ninewa, and the outlying areas of Baghdad Province.
Outside Baghdad and Anbar, reductions in coalition forces presence and reliance on local Iraqi security forces have resulted in a tenuous security situation…
As a result of it, on Tuesday, 10,000 US and Iraq troops launched an operation against al Qaeda networks north of the Iraqi capital, Baghdad. The troops were said to be moving in around the city of Baqouba in Diyala province, which is considered to be an al Qaeda stronghold.
Even Gen. Petraeus’ designation of the Anbar operation a “stunning reversal” is hedged by a note of caution in the Pentagon report:
Al Qaeda makes up for the decline in sectarian violence in Baghdad
Local Sunni cooperation with and support to Coalition forces in Anbar Province is not uniform. Although tribal resistance to al Qaeda is a positive development in Anbar, insurgent groups continue to attack Coalition and ISF [Iraqi Security forces] targets in other areas in western Iraq.
The situation in Baghdad as described in the Pentagon report as an improvement in sectarian strife but also registers al Qaeda’s increasing center-stage presence and the damage its terrorists inflict on the campaign for pacifying Baghdad:
Although it is still too early to assess whether a sustainable trend is emerging, attacks on Baghdad declined as the Coalition and Iraqi force presence expanded while Sunni groups and Shiite militants departed or refrained from operations. Despite the departure of large numbers of JAM [radical Shiite Sadrist Mahdi Army] fighters from Baghdad, JAM has continued to act as a de-facto government in Sadr City…
Yet Al Qaeda maintained the ability to conduct infrequent, high-profile, mass-casualty attacks in Baghdad.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s Iraq sources believe that nothing less than a US political pact with JAM’s leader, the radical Shiite cleric Moqtada Sadr, who is emerging at the dominant political figure in Iraq, will finally subdue his Mehdi Army militia, which he has led int two uprisings against American forces in Iraq.
Circumstances are going Sadr’s way. His main political rival, Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, head of the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council (SCIRI), is undergoing treatment for lung cancer in Iran. Sadr is walking into the power vacuum left by Hakim.
He is also reported to be distancing himself from the radical elements of his own Mehdi Army. There are whispers in Iraq that some of his aides are secretly fingering the extremists in-house for elimination by American and British forces. This week, US and Iraqi forces “eliminated” one of those radicals, Abu Qadir.
Oil rustling starves government, nourishes violence
The Shiite cleric appears to be maneuvering quite adroitly for the middle ground in Iraqi politics. Our sources report that he is using his connections with Sunni and Kurdish leaders on three sides of the sectarian lines to promote common action for the sake of national unity and saving the country from meltdown in a full-blown civil and religious war. Sadr also seems to be inching out of Iran’s sphere of influence in Iraq.
Despite these affirmative signs, Washington is thinking hard before responding to the cleric’s overtures, for a number of reasons:
1. The turbulent cleric would be satisfied with nothing less than the top spot in Iraqi government which would entail ousting prime minister Nouri al-Maliki as prime minister, along with the entire ruling establishment in Baghdad.
This sort of upheaval was rejected earlier in 2007, when the former prime minister Iyad Allawi, a favorite in Washington, proposed leading a military coup at the head of a coalition of Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds. Sadr is now building for himself a similar factional coalition. But the Bush administration fears the situation in Iraq is too fragile and precarious to survive even the smallest political shock.
2. Moqtada Sadr is known for his volatile, capricious nature. Even his close aides find him unpredictable. Yet some circles in Washington argue that the situation of the United States and its army in Iraq leaves little choice but to embrace the Shiite cleric despite his shortcomings.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s Baghdad sources maintain that so long as Washington does not make up its mind which political force to back in Baghdad, any military FAQ operational gains will be short-lived, since the entire operation was designed to bolster political stability at the center of government.
Maliki’s domestic standing is ebbing and his government perceived as weak, corrupt and incapable of provide the people with security and sources of livelihood. This weakness of government will quickly invite Sunni extremist insurgents and al Qaeda terrorists pushed out of Baghdad by the US-Iraqi operation to creep back, as Gen. Petraeus predicted.
Another seriously destabilizing factor in the Iraqi equation, which is exploited by anti-American insurgents and al Qaeda, was discussed by DEBKA-Net-Weekly in 2005.
It has finally won the attention it deserves in the June 2007 Pentagon report to Congress:
A variety of criminal, insurgent and militia groups engage in the theft and illicit sale of oil to fund their activities. This denies the GoI [government of Iraq] a significant portion of revenue and contributes to the shortfalls in fuel allocation that ministries rely upon to operate vehicles, generators and other equipment. Elements of the MoD’s Strategic Infrastructure Battalions and the MoO’s Oil protection Force, tasked with protecting infrastructure, are sometimes suspected of being complicit in interdiction and smuggling. As much as 70% of the fuel processed in Bayji was lost to the black market – possibly as much as US$2 billion a year.
In February 2007, the Iraqi government, in coordination with US forces, launched Operation Honest Hands, a crackdown on oil smuggling at the Bayji refinery. The Iraqi Army assumed control of the entire Bayji refinery and equipment is being installed to prevent siphoning.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s Iraq sources note that “Honest Hands” was an over-optimistic designation; the new operation has scarcely scratched the surface of the massive theft of Iraqi oil.