One Week of Operation Phantom Thunder
Al Qaeda prepared for the assault on Baqubah. "Days before the offensive, unmanned U.S. drones recorded video of insurgents digging trenches with back-hoes," the Associated Press reported. "About 30 improvised explosive devices, or IEDs, were planted on Route Coyote, the U.S. code name for a main Baqubah thoroughfare." About 15 percent of the western portion of the city is said to have been cleared, and the operation could take up to 60 days.
As operations in Diyala province are ongoing, Rear Admiral Mark Fox, a spokesman for Multinational Forces Iraq, stated Iraqi and Coalition forces are laying a trap for al Qaeda fighters fleeing the hot zones in the belts. "If you've got [the regions] properly cordoned then they're going to flee into somebody's arms. It's a trap," he stated. As we've noted since the beginning of the operation, Iraqi and U.S. forces have been placed in blocking positions along the rivers and key choke points.
Al Qaeda is left with fewer places to hide: Anbar Province no longer a safe haven, pressure has increased Baghdad and the hot operations in the belts, and the Shia south is hostile. Ninewa, Kirkuk, and Salahadin, remain as al Qaeda's fall back positions, but Iraqi and U.S. Forces have prepared for this option. Some of the best Iraqi Army units are stationed in the northwest. These are seasoned units that have recently returned from supporting the Baghdad Security Operation.
... the purpose of the Baghdad Security Plan and Operation Phantom Thunder is to deny al Qaeda Baghdad and the Belts, and to kill as many operatives and leaders as possible in the process. When al Qaeda attempts to regroup, it will be in the hinterlands, and in some cases, in regions less hospitable to its actions.
Militants Said to Flee Before U.S. Offensive
In his news conference, General Odierno offered the broadest assessment yet of the multipronged American offensive around Baghdad that got under way this week, using the additional troops sent to Iraq as part of Mr. Bush's troop buildup. Despite the flight of the Qaeda leaders from Baquba -- a pattern that appears to have been replicated in other areas included in the new offensive, including Qaeda strongholds along the Tigris River south of Baghdad -- he adopted an upbeat tone, saying the offensive held "a good potential" for reducing the Qaeda threat to the point that American force levels in Iraq could be reduced by next spring.
First, he said, American and Iraqi troops would need to sustain their crackdown long enough for Iraqi forces to move into neighborhoods cleared of Qaeda fighters and hold them. This is a pattern American commanders have tried unsuccessfully before, as in a failed attempt to secure wide areas of Baghdad last summer. But General Odierno said Iraqi forces were "getting better," "staying and fighting," "taking casualties" and adding an additional 7,500 soldiers to their overall strength every five weeks.
Addressing the problems facing American troops in Baquba, General Odierno played down the significance of the Qaeda leaders fleeing ahead of the offensive, saying American forces would hunt them down. "I guarantee you, we're going to track down those leaders," he said. "And we're in the process of doing that. We know who they are, and we're coming after them, and we're going to work that extremely hard."
After more than three years of saying publicly that they had all the troops they needed for the war here, American commanders have begun acknowledging in the past year that the ability of the Qaeda groups to establish new strongholds after old ones are destroyed -- and to regenerate their leadership -- has owed much to the fact that American manpower has been severely stretched.
But with all the additional Army brigades ordered into the war by Mr. Bush now in the field, along with additional Marine units, the commanders here now have more firepower than they have had at any time since the American invasion in 2003. With that, the American generals face what they have acknowledged to be the best, and possibly last, chance to persuade critics in Congress and a disillusioned American public that persisting in Iraq is worthwhile.
Arrowhead Ripper: Surrender or Die
The combat in Baqubah should soon reach a peak. Al Qaeda seems to have been effectively isolated. The initial attack on 19 June achieved enough surprise that al Qaeda was caught off guard and trapped. They have been beaten back mostly into pockets and are surrounded and will be dealt with.
LTG Ray Odierno visited Baqubah on the 21st. Odierno clarified that this battle is to be final: we are not going to do this again. Odierno stressed to our commanders that they need to be thinking of an end-state that results in Iraqis taking charge, but that Iraqi commanders should not be given the reins until they are ready, so that the result is we set them up for success. Odierno's timing was remarkable: even before he arrived, the commanders here were talking about end-state daily and, on a more sour note, our commanders have their hands full with the local Iraqi commanders who seem less competent (to be kind) than those I have seen elsewhere, such as in Mosul.
Our guys are winning. Al Qaeda is about to be strangled and pummeled to death in this town, but the local Iraqi leadership is severely wanting. This was most obviously noted in one area in particular, where there were some slight indicators of a possible humanitarian need. "Crisis" certainly is not the correct word, but there are displaced persons numbering at least in the hundreds. LTC Fred Johnson actually took me out there. (The access even to "bad" news is amazing with this Brigade.)
I have been with LTC Fred Johnson for several days. LTC Johnson seems to recharge on sunlight or moonlight and can run a man into the ground. After seeing the humanitarian need building with no action to abate it underway, Johnson was very unhappy. He immediately started jerking choke chains on the people who are supposed to be handling humanitarian need, trying to avert having it build into a crisis.
This is where the inept local Iraqi commanders come in. I've seen them in meeting after meeting, over the past few days, finding ways to be underachievers. The Iraqi commanders have dozens of large trucks and have only to drive to our base to collect the supplies and distribute those supplies to the people displaced in the battle. Our troops are fully engaged in combat, yet the Iraqi leaders were not able to carry that load without LTC Johnson supplying the initiative. The Kurds would have had this fixed yesterday. The Iraqi commanders in Mosul would have fixed this. The local Iraqi command climate is disappointing by comparison.
There are serious technical problems that I have brought up privately to high-ranking PAO officers over the past nearly two years which persist today, despite that any one of them could be easily resolved with better planning on the part of PAO. I've found that communicating with them privately is generally useless. (Obviously, as the problems persist.) A person has got to tell a million people before they are heard. Since it will affect how the news from here gets reported, and since I know the other writers here are often afraid to speak up about this stuff (one senior PAO officer actually threatened to kick me out a few months ago), I'll take the heat on telling the million people:
I could be in combat now, but have been wasting time trying to get a badge to get into the dining facility. Got one. Not a big deal, until you add that up for 20 reporters all wasting part of their very limited time (we are in a war), and soldiers' time (they are fighting it) getting ridiculous paperwork when the Press ID could simply say, "Unescorted access to dining facilities is authorized. Please call DSN 867 5309 with any questions." Simple solution. I have wasted hours on the issue of eating over the past few days. It adds up when your time windows open and close unpredictably and rapidly.
On communications, senior Public Affairs officers knew this battle was unfolding. It would have taken practically zero assets to set up a media shack or tent in advance. The shack or tent only needs to have electrical outlets and an internet dish, along with phone lines. Cots would be nice but I can sleep in the dirt. (Sleeping arrangements here are excellent. I'm in a tent with soldiers and have a cot.) We need a dedicated dish and phone lines because for hours each day our RBGANS are not working, nor are our Thuraya sat-phones. All those reporters flooding out here are about to flood into difficult reporting terrain. Cell phones do not work in Baqubah.
Public Affairs should have known this months ago. Valuable stories about our soldiers and the battle are being lost and will never be filed because reporters, after a long day of being on the battlefield, cannot make a simple phone call, or file a story. Why be here? It's pretty dangerous, and insurance is expensive. I had to skip a mission this morning because I cannot make communications, and am down to filing stories on the fly again without time for editing. There is no other way to keep the flow open, and if you are reading this, it's only after I've wasted hours trying to upload it. Hours I could have been with our soldiers, telling about their days in one of the most important battles of this war.
Otherwise, the battle is going very well. A big fight seems to be brewing. As of about noon in Baqubah on the 22nd, there seems to be a lull in the fighting. A calm. This is about to get wet. At the going rate, al Qaeda in Baqubah will soon have two choices: Surrender, or die.