How Prime Minister Maliki Pacified IraqBy KIMBERLY KAGAN and FREDERICK W. KAGAN
June 10, 2008; Page A17
America is very close to succeeding in Iraq. The "near-strategic defeat" of al Qaeda in Iraq described by CIA Director Michael Hayden last month in the Washington Post has been followed by the victory of the Iraqi government's security forces over illegal Shiite militias, including Iranian-backed Special Groups. The enemies of Iraq and America now cling desperately to their last bastions, while the political process builds momentum.
These tremendous gains remain fragile and could be lost to skillful enemy action, or errors in Baghdad or Washington. But where the U.S. was unequivocally losing in Iraq at the end of 2006, we are just as unequivocally winning today.
By February 2008, America and its partners accomplished a series of tasks thought to be impossible. The Sunni Arab insurgency and al Qaeda in Iraq were defeated in Anbar, Diyala and Baghdad provinces, and the remaining leaders and fighters clung to their last urban outpost in Mosul. The Iraqi government passed all but one of the "benchmark" laws (the hydrocarbon law being the exception, but its purpose is now largely accomplished through the budget) and was integrating grass-roots reconciliation with central political progress. The sectarian civil war had ended.
Meanwhile, the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF), swelled by 100,000 new recruits in 2007, was fighting hard and skillfully throughout Iraq. The Shiite-led government was showing an increasing willingness to use its forces even against Shiite militias. The announcement that provincial elections would be held by year's end galvanized political movements across the country, focusing Iraq's leaders on the need to get more votes rather than more guns.
Three main challenges to security and political progress remained: clearing al Qaeda out of Mosul; bringing Basra under the Iraqi government's control; and eliminating the Special Groups safe havens in Sadr City. It seemed then that these tasks would require enormous effort, entail great loss of life, and take the rest of the year or more. Instead, the Iraqi government accomplished them within a few months.
- Mosul: After losing in central Iraq, remnants of al Qaeda and Baathist insurgents were driven north. These groups started to reconstitute in Mosul as the last large urban area open to them. Mosul also contained financial networks that had funded the insurgency, was a waypoint for foreign fighters infiltrating from Syria, and has ethno-sectarian fault lines that al Qaeda sought to exploit.
The Iraqi government responded by forming the Ninewah Operations Command early in 2008, concentrating forces around Mosul, and preparing for a major clearing operation. In February, the ISF cleared the neighborhoods of Palestine and Sumer, two key al Qaeda safe havens.
In the meantime, American forces conducted numerous raids against the terrorist network, netting hundreds of key individuals. The ISF launched Operation Lion's Roar on May 10. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki visited Mosul on May 14, and the ISF began Operation Mother of Two Springs shortly thereafter.
The results have been dramatic. Enemy attacks fell from an average of 40 per day in the first week of May to between four and six per day in the following two weeks. Coalition forces have captured or killed the al-Qaeda emirs of Mosul, Southeast Mosul, Ninewah Province and much of their networks.
Mr. Maliki announced a $100 million reconstruction package for Mosul on May 17 and dispatched an envoy on May 29 to oversee the distribution of funds. Security progress was made possible in part by the enrollment of 1,000 former members of the Iraqi Army. They were part of the revision of the de-Baathification policy legislated by the Iraqi Parliament earlier in the year.
- Basra: Al Qaeda's defeat in 2007 exposed Iranian-backed Special Groups and Shiite militias as the most important sources of violence and casualties. The Maliki government had shown its willingness to target Sunni insurgents, but many feared it would not challenge Iran's proxies and the Sadrist militias within which they functioned. Basra, in particular, seemed an almost insurmountable problem following the withdrawal of British combat forces from the city. This left Iraq's second-largest city (and only port) in the hands of rival militias.
Iraqi and American commanders began planning for a gradual effort to retake the city. Mr. Maliki decided not to wait. He ordered clearing operations to begin on March 22, sent reinforcements to support those operations, and accompanied the first of those reinforcements to Basra on March 24.
Operation Knight's Charge started on March 25, as Iraqi Security Forces moved into Mahdi Army (JAM) safe havens throughout the city. Initial operations were not promising – some 1,000 ISF personnel deserted or refused to fight, most of them from the newly formed 14th Iraqi Army Division. Nevertheless, the Iraqi Army seized control of the port.
Initial setbacks did not deter Mr. Maliki, who continued to send in reinforcements, including Iraqi Special Forces, Iraqi helicopters and the Quick Reaction Force of the 1st Iraqi Army Division from Anbar. Negotiations between Iraqi leaders and Iranian Brig. Gen. Ghassem Soleimani, commander of the Iranian Quds Force, produced a "cease-fire" on March 30.
But operations continued, and after two weeks the ISF, with American advisers and aviation but no American combat units, launched clearing operations throughout the city on April 12. By mid-May, the ISF controlled Basra's neighborhoods, and drove JAM and Special Groups fighters out of their safe havens, pursuing them north and south of the city.
Mr. Maliki had authorized the recruitment of 2,500 local security volunteers and begun negotiating with their tribal leaders for their incorporation into the ISF. The establishment of Iraqi government control in Basra was symbolized by the recapture of state buildings and open areas that had been occupied by various Sadrist and other insurgent groups, and by the seizure of enormous weapons caches.
- Sadr City: The Special Groups had been preparing for an offensive of their own in the first months of 2008, stockpiling arms and moving trained fighters into and around the country. Mr. Maliki's move into Basra led them to begin their offensive prematurely, including the launching of heavy rocket and mortar attacks against the Green Zone from their bases in Sadr City. Iraqi Security Forces crushed these attacks in central Iraq and, with American assistance, in most of Baghdad.
The rocketing of the Green Zone, however, convinced American and Iraqi leaders to cordon off Sadr City, and to clear the two southernmost neighborhoods from which most of the rockets were coming. The government and U.S. commanders moved reinforcements toward Sadr City and began planning for a clearing operation. In the meantime, Iraqi officials began negotiating with Sadr City leaders, as U.S. forces erected a wall to separate the cleared neighborhoods from the rest of Sadr City.
On May 20, the ISF, supported by U.S. airpower and advisers, moved rapidly into the remainder of Sadr City. They received help from the local population in identifying IED locations and enemy safe houses, and destroyed enemy leadership centers. By the end of May, most of the Special Groups and hard-core Sadrist fighters had been killed, captured or driven off.
At present, al Qaeda is left with a tenuous foothold in Ninewah and a scattered presence throughout the rest of Sunni Iraq. Special Groups leaders who survived have mostly fled to Iran, while hard-core Sadrist fighters have fallen back to Maysan Province, whose capital, Amarah, has become their last urban sanctuary. All of Iraq's other major population centers are controlled by the ISF, which can now move freely throughout the country as never before.
The war is not over. Enemy groups are reforming, rearming and preparing new attacks. Al Qaeda in Iraq will conduct spectacular attacks in 2008 wherever it can. Special Groups and their JAM affiliates will probably reconstitute within a few months and launch new offensives timed to influence both the American and Iraqi elections in the fall.
And for all its progress and success, the ISF is not yet able to stand on its own. Coalition forces continue to play key support roles, maintaining stability and security in cleared but threatened areas, and serving as impartial and honest brokers between Iraqi groups working toward reconciliation.
But success is in sight. Compared with the seemingly insurmountable obstacles already overcome, the remaining challenges in Iraq are eminently solvable – if we continue to pursue a determined strategy that builds on success rather than throwing our accomplishments away. No one in December 2006 could have imagined how far we would have come in 18 months. Having come this far, we must see this critical effort through to the end.
Ms. Kagan is president of the Institute for the Study of War in Washington, D.C., and author of "The Surge: A Military History," forthcoming from Encounter Books. Mr. Kagan is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.