US forces are solidifying control over some of the most persistent militant strongholds of Al Qaeda in Iraq northeast of Baghdad, drawing on a new counterinsurgency model that has already seen some success in troubled Diyala Province.
The newly established US military control over what officers call the "breadbasket" – the lush Diyala River Valley 70 miles northeast of the capital – is only the first part of a multiprong strategy to boost numbers of Iraqi Army and police in the area and re-connect beleaguered local authorities to the provincial government and Baghdad.
"We [and] the Iraqi forces and government are committing ourselves to staying in this area, which has previously not happened," says Lt. Col. James Brown, executive officer of the 4th Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 2nd Infantry Division. "It's been go in, find Al Qaeda in Iraq, kill them, and then leave. Big surprise, they come right back."
This push across the fields and palm groves of Diyala is part of a four-province offensive called "Operation Phantom Phoenix," which involves thousands of US and Iraqi troops going after Sunni militants that have been pushed out of Baghdad by the surge in US troops. The fall in violent attacks has been marred by a spate of car bombs and suicide attacks over the past two weeks in Baghdad; the US effort Thursday included the heaviest airstrikes since 2006 against some 40 targets south of the capital.
In Kuwait Saturday, President Bush conceded that until last year, "our strategy simply wasn't working," with Iraq riven by sectarian violence and Sunni and Shiite militants strengthening their grip in many areas. He said US forces were now on track to see a 20,000-troop drawdown by mid-2008, to the presurge level of 130,000. He warned it "would be premature" to suggest that the current offensive is a final push.
"Al Qaeda ... will continue to target the innocent with violence," Mr. Bush said. "But we've dealt Al Qaeda in Iraq heavy blows, and it now faces a growing uprising of ordinary Iraqis who want to live peaceful lives."
The surge was meant to lower violence to enable national reconciliation. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki claimed in recent days that "sectarian violence has ended" in Iraq, and that there was now political room for the "whole spectrum of the Iraqi people." But deep divisions remain. Still, parliament passed a law Saturday reversing key elements of the de-Baathification order, which should bring former bureaucrats, many of them Sunnis, back into the fold.
The increasing willingness of Sunni tribes, alienated by Al Qaeda tactics, to form US-backed paramilitary groups called Sahwa, or "Awakening," has been crucial. A six-month cease-fire by anti-US Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr has also let the US concentrate on Sunni militants.
But in Diyala, long-term change will depend on the success of principles laid out in the Army's 2006 counterinsurgency manual, written by Gen. David Petraeus, the top US officer in Iraq. "The basic idea is that you surge the military forces, and then surge Iraqi government and services into the area after them," says a State Department representative working with the local Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT).
The sequence begins with the military taking the ground, then having Awakening and similar militias provide security. After that, effort is put into reconnecting levels of government so local officials know that their problems are being solved.
A similar pattern has had some success in the provincial capital of Baqubah, which a year ago was one of the most violent places in Iraq. Operation Arrowhead Ripper last summer began to take ground; Sunnis have since lined up in some areas to establish local militias.
The State Department official says that in November he heard complaints about schools – few books, bad desks. To him it spoke of real progress from a year before, when security issues were far more acute. In fact, Baqubah has achieved some normalcy.
"I'm fairly optimistic this [Diyala] plan will expand government reach," the officials says. "Does this mean all people will say, 'Hey, we want to join the government'? No…. All this is reversible if the coalition disappears and security collapses."
Results have been mixed in the Diyala River Valley. US officers have not hidden their disappointment that many of the some 200 Al Qaeda in Iraq and other militants left before the offensive began Jan. 8, leaving behind six booby-trapped houses and 30 vehicle or roadside bombs.
In the first days of the operation, the US military says, four insurgents were killed, four wounded, and 26 people detained. Of 18 weapons caches found, one underground facility included sleeping quarters, ordnance and bombmaking material, and detailed diagrams of a nearby US base. Six Americans died when a house rigged with explosives collapsed on them Jan. 9.
"You can kill AQI and insurgents all day – they'll always make more. In fact, you may be fueling the fire that creates them," says Lt. Col. Brown, from Russellville, Ark.
The broader aim is to remove the reasons people fight. But US forces in Afghanistan and Iraq have been struggling to achieve such results for 18 months, using the same template, with results largely depending on local authority reestablishing itself.
"It all goes back to one guy sitting in his shack, deciding what he's going to do today. 'Do I get up and work at the date processing plant today, and make $10, or do I go find a 155mm artillery shell, put a blasting cap on it, wait for coalition forces to drive by, and get paid $10," says Colonel Brown. "If he doesn't put the IED [in] ... contractors and NGOs are willing to ... dredge the canals and build the factories and put up the power line and build the school. You can see the cascading effect."
US officers estimate that 75 militants remain in the "breadbasket" area. Iraqi Army numbers there will double from 250 to 500, and police from zero to 75. "They are waiting to see if we do what we've done before, which is kick over some haystacks, find nothing, and then leave," says Brown. When they come out, he expects "they are going to realize this is different. They'll see construction, stores opening, and ask: 'Why are there police driving on the streets?'"