The Magazine

How They Did It

Executing the winning strategy in Iraq.

Nov 19, 2007, Vol. 13, No. 10 • By KIMBERLY KAGAN
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U.S. commanders sent two of the five new brigades provided by the surge to Baghdad. As the Baghdad Security Plan began in February, U.S. and Iraqi troops in Baghdad adopted a new posture. They cleared some neighborhoods in order to locate their Joint Security Stations there. U.S. and Iraqi forces lived together at these small headquarters. They sent detachments from Joint Security Stations to smaller outposts and slowly spread throughout the city. They regularly engaged with the local population. They developed relationships with residents, gained their trust, and reconnoitered or cleared enemy positions. To establish safe neighborhoods and markets, they placed concrete barriers around positions vulnerable to car bomb attacks. The combination of more U.S. troops and the new mission of protecting the population drove down the number of execution-style killings in the capital.

Commanders positioned the other three additional brigades in Baghdad's "belts," the networks of roadways, rivers, and other lines of communication within a 30-mile radius of the capital. Al Qaeda's sustained campaign of vehicle bombing relied on an extensive support system outside the city to supply stolen and stripped vehicles, factories for converting them into vehicle bombs, explosives, money, and suicide bombers (most of them foreign). Al Qaeda's strongholds and sanctuaries were in Salman Pak, Arab Jabour, Falluja, Abu Ghraib, Karma, Tarmiya, and Baquba. In early 2006, al Qaeda also moved fighters along the Euphrates River valley between Anbar Province and North Babil. U.S. and Iraqi security forces were especially sparse in these rural areas.

The enemies of the coalition and the Iraqi government were able to use the terrain around Baghdad to funnel forces and supplies into the capital, to circumnavigate the city by highway, and to move from the city into the provinces. General Odierno identified the terrain between Karma and Tarmiya, south of Lake Tharthar, as "a known al Qaeda transit route." And some of the same al Qaeda operatives and couriers moved in each of the belts and through Baghdad. The spring '07 search for American soldiers kidnapped in Mahmudiya, south of Baghdad, led U.S. forces to Samarra, north of Baghdad, where the identification cards of two of the soldiers were found. Al Qaeda established emirs in the northern and southern belts in order to link its efforts in the different sanctuaries in these regions.

Generals Petraeus and Odierno designed Operation Phantom Thunder to clear al Qaeda from its sanctuaries in the belts around Baghdad. Phantom Thunder consisted of multiple, simultaneous military operations around Baghdad designed to prevent the enemy from fleeing from one safe haven to another with impunity. Securing the capital from al Qaeda also required the dismantling of a car bombing network based in Karkh and Rusafa, neighborhoods in central Baghdad on both sides of the Tigris.

The Phantom Thunder offensive began on June 15, as soon as all the new brigades had arrived and were ready. Northeast of Baghdad, almost 10,000 U.S. and Iraqi forces surrounded Baquba and blocked the escape routes from the city along the Diyala River valley on June 18. U.S. forces south of Baghdad conducted clearing operations from north to south along the Tigris River valley, focusing first on the al Qaeda sanctuary in Arab Jabour on June 15. A large concentration of U.S. troops cleared the al Qaeda stronghold in the Baghdad neighborhood of Dora at the end of June and first several weeks of July. Marines, meanwhile, were clearing Falluja and Karma. Enemy attacks and U.S. casualties spiked during the first week of these major clearing operations, but both fell as U.S. forces drove the enemy from these sanctuaries.

General Joseph Fil, the Baghdad division commander, explained in late June how the operations inside and outside Baghdad worked, and why the fighting briefly intensified.

As we have gone through the city and concentrated in a lot of areas where [the enemy] had free rein sometime before, those areas are now denied to them. And so their freedom of maneuver inside of the city, their own battle space, has been more and more restricted, and their support zones have been severely restricted, both inside the city and also in the belts around the city. And so they're running out of maneuver space and they are starting to fight very hard.