Tuesday, November 23, 2004

The Triangle of Death

The Los Angeles Times reports the onset of a new American offensive against Sunni antigovernment forces in the "Triangle of Death", a Ba'ath Party stronghold and the recent site of the execution of tens of  Iraqi policemen.

U.S. Marines accompanied by Iraqi security forces launched a new offensive early today aimed at regaining control of northern Babil province, a region just south of Baghdad beset by kidnappings, shootings and carjackings for more than a year. ...

Terming it their first major post-Fallouja campaign to regain control of an insurgent-riddled area outside Baghdad, officials said they would continue a series of preplanned raids in towns and farming areas largely within a so-called "death triangle" of cities bordered by Latifiya, Mahmoudiya and Yousifiya. U.S. troops have also engaged in a series of counterattacks to quell resistance in Mosul, Baghdad and other towns in the wake of their offensive to regain control of the rebel stronghold of Fallouja.

"We are going to push the fight back out to the enemy while he's reeling," said Capt. Tad Douglas, 28, who led an elite reconnaissance platoon of the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit in the raids. "We've seen fighters from Fallouja filtering down here, and we're going to take the offensive while they're still licking their wounds."

Explosives are believed to be plentiful in the area, the site of the Al Qa Qaa munitions depot and numerous arms caches. "Marines have uncovered several weapons caches in northern Babil province buried in dirt fields. The arms include mortars, rocket-propelled grenades and 500-pound bombs. At this point, though, they believe they have made only a dent in the supply."

Just how much explosive may have been salted away in the months prior to OIF was underscored in a separate find far to the north, 45 kilometers south of Mosul when soldiers from the 25th Division found a very large cache of buried weapons.

During their patrol, Soldiers from 2nd Battalion, 8th Field Artillery Regiment discovered huge stockpiles of weapons and munitions, including: an anti-aircraft gun, 15,000 anti-aircraft rounds, 4,600 hand grenades, 144 VOG-17M anti-personnel grenade launchers, 25 SA-7 surface-to-air missiles, 44 SA-7 battery packs, 20 guided missile packs, 21 120mm mortar rounds, two 120mm mortar tubes, 10 122mm rockets, six 152mm artillery rounds and two 57mm artillery rounds. Soldiers also discovered a building full of explosive-making materials. The three-acre site is secure and still under investigation with more weapons and munitions discoveries expected, Task Force Olympia officials said.

The "Triangle of Death" has become an obstacle course for Shi'ites attempting to travel through the belt of Sunni towns to Baghdad. The Washington Post describes the butchery of Shi'ite travelers by men sometimes described by the press as 'militants' or 'freedom fighters'.

A particularly militant strain of Sunni Islam within the insurgency, Wahhabism, has chilled many Shiites. ... Each driver had a story: Abdullah was following a van carrying a coffin that was stopped at a checkpoint last month, destined for the vast Shiite cemetery in Najaf. The men at the checkpoint tossed the body on the street, doused it with gasoline and set fire to it, he said. ...

They forced the young men to get out, then ordered them to insult Ali (a figure revered by Shi'ites). Two men refused, he said, and were bundled off and apparently killed. "They act according to their own religious edict: If you kill a Shiite, you go to paradise," he said. "It's like they're bringing chickens from the market and slaughtering them," said another driver, Haider Abdel-Zahra.

Last week, residents traded stories about a young man with long hair who was forced into a car by insurgents. His body showed up at his father's house a few days later, with a gunshot to the chest and some of his hair pulled from his scalp. A letter left on top of his corpse warned that death was the fate of those who disobey Islamic injunctions. Residents also spoke of a woman whose body was left in the street. Though she was wearing a veil, they said, she was apparently killed for wearing pants, which some deem un-Islamic. In several Shiite mosques, prayer leaders have denounced the killings in their sermons, and the bloodshed has unleashed fears of sectarian strife.

The Strategy Page suggests that the former Ba'athists are somewhat off balance and the US is pressing its advantage.

For the last 18 months, coalition intelligence forces, and Special Forces units, have been developing informer networks. Tips from informants inside Fallujah were responsible for the rapid progress of the coalition attack, and the failure of many of the defenders ambushes and boob-traps. Now the coalition money is being spent all over central Iraq. With nearly 2,500 anti-government gunmen dead or captured in Fallujah, those who fled are shorthanded, out in the open, and a source of quick money for sharp eyed Iraqis.

This view is very similar to that put forward by a Marine spokesman interviewed by the Los Angeles Times.

In undertaking the operation, Marine Col. Ron Johnson said the aim was to squeeze the insurgents by taking territory and freedom of movement from them. Johnson's 2,200 Marines at Forward Operating Base Kalsu have already increased their presence in the province through more aggressive patrolling of towns and back roads. The heightened tempo is aimed at the insurgents or criminals who had grown accustomed to moving through the province with near-impunity. Marines have detained more than 600 Iraqis in raids or at roadblocks since early August. "There are multiple factions competing for power with a multitude of interests — some of them are no more than thugs — and they want to take advantage of the chaos," said Johnson, who declared that "there will be no place my men won't go" in north Babil. ... "You can't have a functioning country where Shiites cannot drive from their cities to the capital," said a senior military officer at Kalsu. "The insurgents know it. And everyone in Baghdad knows it."

The indiscriminate terrorist attacks on Shi'ites and Kurds may be erecting a counter "Triangle of Death" against them with American firepower and Shi'ite and Kurdish enmity at the three corners. Many of the Iraqi troops who fought in Fallujah were of Kurdish extraction. Another story from the LA Times reports:

Staff Sgt. Adel Ahmed led a reporter to a spot outside a yellow schoolhouse in central Fallouja. There, he said, his troops had finished off a fighter carrying Syrian identification. The Iraqis pointed to a protruding mound of earth behind the school where, they said, the Syrian was buried. "We are fighting to save our Iraq from foreigners and terrorists," Ahmed declared. Most Iraqi troops here appear to be either Shiite Muslims or Kurds. Both groups are rivals of the minority Sunni Muslim Arabs who have long dominated Iraq and constitute the majority of Fallouja's population. ...

But the preponderance of Shiites and Kurds also points to one of the Iraqi army's potential weaknesses: The failure to attract sufficient recruits from Sunni cities, where hostility toward America runs high and many young men choose to enlist in guerrilla forces instead.

Although the Sunnis are minority in Iraq, they were dominant under Saddam Hussein and the habit of command among some former Ba'athists may be hard to break. MSNBC describes Kurd-baiting baiting by the terrorists.

Insurgents battling U.S. and Iraqi forces in the northern city of Mosul have been trying to drag the Kurdish minority into their fight and set off a sectarian war, Kurdish and Arab officials say. ... Violence against Kurds has escalated in recent days, officials say. The offices -- and officials -- of Kurdish political parties have been attacked. Insurgents fired on a truck carrying Kurdish peshmerga fighters. And at least one Kurd was said to have been beheaded in Mosul, a largely Sunni Arab city. “They are trying to ignite the flames of sedition between Arabs and Kurds,” Khasro Gouran, Mosul’s Kurdish deputy provincial governor, said by telephone from Mosul. “They want the Kurds to react and the peshmerga to come in (from outside Mosul) so there would be sectarian strife in the city.”

Attempts to inflame the Kurds may eventually succeed.. The Associated Press reports that two Sunni clerics opposed to elections called by the interim government have been gunned down.

Sheik Ghalib Ali al-Zuhairi was a member of the Association of Muslim Scholars, an influential Sunni clerics group that has called for a boycott of nationwide elections scheduled for Jan. 30. He was shot as he was leaving a mosque in the town of Muqdadiyah and died in the local hospital, said police Col. Raisan Hussein. Muqdadiyah is about 60 miles north of Baghdad. A day earlier, unknown gunmen assassinated another prominent Sunni cleric in the northern city of Mosul Sheik Faidh Mohamed Amin al-Faidhi, who was the brother of the group's spokesman. It as unclear whether the two attacks were related.

The former Ba'athists may still have plenty of money, weapons and explosives. But they have plenty of enemies too.