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ISF Steps Up in Sunni Arab North

As Operation Forward Together continues in the Baghdad area and the relatively peaceful south faces turbulence from Shi’a militia activity, the Sunni-dominated areas in the north-central part of the country - Salah al-Din, al-Ta’mim, and Diyala - are improving, with Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) now largely in the lead. The large western Anbar Province, by contrast, appears to have given way to a stalemate, as U.S. and Iraqi forces have succeeded only in preventing al-Qaeda in Iraq from establishing a stable base without being able to clear insurgent activity sufficient to rebuild. While political and economic structures in the former three areas are in place, albeit in need of development, such structures have been almost entirely destroyed in the Anbar. Significant change in the Anbar will likely await success in Baghdad, as the capital with its overwhelming importance to the government’s success is now the focus of U.S. security operations.

The decline in U.S. troop presence in the Arab Sunni north and the parallel rise in Iraqi security responsibility was detailed in a September 13 press briefing given by Maj. Gen. William Caldwell:

…In multidivision area north, we observed Iraqi security forces assuming the lead over the past 12 months. As we have always said, as the Iraqi security forces stand up, the coalition forces will stand down. And this is evident in the fact that coalition forces in multidivision north area have been reduced from approximately 31,000 down to 21,000. And along with that, we saw a reduction in the number of operating bases from 35 operating bases down to 11 operating bases. Also in November of 2005 there was only one Iraqi battalion in the lead in that same area. Today there are now two Iraqi division headquarters in the lead, eight Iraqi brigades in the lead, and 35 Iraqi battalions in the lead.

There is a clear sign of progress by the Iraqi security forces. As we yesterday observed the transfer authority from the 101st Air Assault Division to the newly arrived 25th Infantry Division, this transfer of authority highlighted the increased capabilities that the Iraqi security forces have assumed in the northern area…

The decrease in U.S. troop levels in the north and west is in part mirrored by increased ISF responsibility. On September 2, the 1st Battalion, 2nd Brigade, 3rd Iraqi Army Division became the “third and final” battalion to take over security in the mid-sized northern city of Tel Afar (MNF-I). Probably the clearest indication of the trend in the north is the fact that the 4th Iraqi Army Division has taken over the operational lead in the “Sunni triangle” cities of Tikrit, Kirkuk and Samarra. This transfer of operational command involves the 4th Iraqi Army Division, and this follows the transfer of the 8th Iraqi Army Division (discussed in a September 6 press briefing linked in our September 8 report). Recent operations of importance in the north and west include a series of operations in Hit, Rawah, Sa’ada and the Haditha Triad.

Leaked elements of a classified intelligence report described in media reports, including a September 12 article in the Washington Post, as well as a follow-up article on September 16 relying in part on comments from Lt. Gen. Peter W. Chiarelli, describe the situation as essentially that of a military stalemate. Reportedly 30 percent of all attacks in Iraq from May to August took place there (the latter source notes that attacks in Baghdad, while far deadlier, were a slightly lower percentage, meaning that close to 60 percent of all attacks were in two provinces). The point made of strategic significance is that Baghdad is considered to be the area of more important operations. MNF-I issued a statement noting that there had been measurable progress in the functioning of Iraqi forces in the Anbar in recent months, while acknowledging that the rebuilding of economic and governmental institutions lies in the future. We also discussed the slow but measurable progress in Ramadi in our July 21 report.

Looking at the big picture, the two most problematic areas in Iraq are Baghdad and the Anbar. Any strategy for security would have been a choice between a focus on one or the other, as a simultaneous approach would have either required significantly more U.S. troops, which has not be considered acceptable at a policy level, or waiting for sufficient Iraqi divisions to be capable of independent operations, which is unlikely for several months, an unacceptable wait considering civilian deaths in Baghdad.

A detailed look at what is required was contained in a highly informative May 29 article in the Weekly Standard by Frederick W. Kagan, A Plan for Victory in Iraq, which argued for a focus on in north and west. While the article has much to recommend it, subsequent events have militated in favor of a focus on Baghdad. Insurgent attacks in the Anbar have remained high, but have not resulted in civilian casualties even remotely close to those in Baghdad. With Iraqi forces seeming capable of keeping security in the north but not in Baghdad, a shift of focus to the latter has seemed a logical choice. Kagan’s article nevertheless provides a useful roadmap to likely security operations in the Sunni areas once the time comes.