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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By the end of June, U.S. and Iraqi forces had liberated western Baquba. By the end of July, they also controlled eastern Baquba, Dora, and Falluja--the major urban strongholds of AQI. By mid-August, they had also cleared other al Qaeda and Shia extremist strongholds south of Baghdad, including a terrorist safe haven in Musayyib, on the road from Karbala to Baghdad. The Phantom Thunder offensive killed over 1,100 enemy fighters and detained over 6,700, including 382 major figures. It drove most remaining al Qaeda into rural areas, far from population centers. The displacement of al Qaeda leaders and fighters made it possible to track many of them down with Special Forces. Phantom Thunder also fractured the belts, compartmentalizing some al Qaeda operations around the capital so that the surviving portions of the network could not readily support one another.


In order to prevent al Qaeda and Shia extremist groups from reestablishing themselves in cities or rural support areas, Generals Petraeus and Odierno launched Phantom Strike, the second Iraq-wide offensive, in the middle of August. Operation Phantom Strike, which is still going on, has consisted of quick-strike raids aimed at destroying terrorist staging areas and preventing insurgents from establishing new sanctuaries.

For example, al Qaeda leaders from Baquba reconstituted in several areas in northern Iraq after U.S. forces cleared Diyala's capital. Some took refuge along the Hamrin Ridge, just north of the Diyala River valley, on a secondary road toward Kirkuk; some reconstituted in tribal areas just south of Baquba. Other al Qaeda elements remained in strongholds along the Tigris River valley, such as Tarmiya, Balad, and Samarra, or in safe havens south of Baghdad. The headquarters of the Islamic State of Iraq remained in Mosul. None of these al Qaeda groups fared well during Phantom Strike. As the offensive began, U.S. and Iraqi forces struck alternately at enemy groups in Diyala and in the provinces to the north, Nineweh, Salah-ad-Din, and Tamim.

Operations in Diyala aimed to keep Baquba secure by clearing and holding territory in its vicinity. U.S. and Iraqi forces cleared 50 villages in the Diyala River valley during the middle of August, many of which al Qaeda had occupied as recently as April. This large operation prevented al Qaeda from reinfiltrating into Diyala from the Hamrin Ridge. U.S. forces cleared the city of Muqdadiya, at the junction of the Diyala and Hamrin Lake, in a follow-on operation in mid-October. They established a new forward operating base near Muqdadiya, so that they could control the Diyala from Baquba to Hamrin Lake with Iraqi assistance.

Meanwhile, U.S. forces in August increased the tempo of attacks on al Qaeda in Balad and Samarra. These cities were important to al Qaeda's ability to project force into Anbar. Al Qaeda launched its failed June expedition to recapture Ramadi from this area, which likewise served as a base for the September 13 assassination of Sheikh Sattar Abu Risha. Thirty masked al Qaeda gunmen attempted to overrun a U.S. observation post in Samarra in late August, presumably to regain control over a safe haven or line of communication. They failed.

In Tarmiya, just south of Balad, along the Tigris, U.S. Special Forces killed and captured numerous high value targets during Phantom Thunder, culminating with the emir of the northern belts on August 7. As Phantom Strike began, Special Forces operating in Tarmiya killed or captured several major al Qaeda figures, including Ali Latif Ibrahim Hamad al-Falahi, aka Abu Ibrahim, responsible for overseeing terrorist operations in the northern belts and "coordinating VBIED attacks in Baghdad," as a military press briefing put it; Abu Yaqub al-Masri, an inner circle al Qaeda leader with close ties to Abu Ayyub al-Masri; and Muayyad Ali Husayn Sulayman al-Bayyati, aka Abu Wathiq, who helped establish AQI in Tarmiya.

In early September, when the operations south of Lake Hamrin concluded, U.S. and Iraqi forces attacked al Qaeda safe havens at the northwestern end of the Hamrin Ridge, known as the Zaab triangle. Al Qaeda's leadership used the rural villages along the Zaab River to plan and synchronize attacks. Meanwhile, U.S. and Iraqi Special Forces, as well as Iraqi conventional forces, conducted raids against key locations and individuals in Kirkuk and Mosul, cities where al Qaeda typically operated.

As U.S. operations closed the gaps in the belt from Karma to Baquba and struck along al Qaeda's north-south routes, they drove members of the network into more constrained spaces, such as Tikrit, Saddam Hussein's hometown and a major source of Sunni insurgents since 2003. Special Forces targeted insurgents in Tikrit in August, making it more difficult for the groups to reconstitute there.

Phantom Thunder and Phantom Strike did not eradicate AQI. Rather, the intensive operations in Tarmiya, Balad, Samarra, and the Zaab triangle impeded it from coordinating attacks in northern and central Iraq. Phantom Thunder and Phantom Strike not only removed the network's established personnel, but also degraded the infrastructure that had permitted the organization to stage regular vehicle bomb attacks from Karma and Tarmiya in March and April 2007. These operations also severed the northern belt from the southern belt.

After the major clearing operation in Arab Jabour and Salman Pak, enemy fighters moved southward along the Tigris just beyond the reach of U.S. forces. The opening campaign of Phantom Strike, therefore, targeted insurgents and extremists trying to reconstitute further along the Tigris River valley. The terrain in Arab Jabour consists mainly of rural farmland (conducive to producing homemade explosives from fertilizer components) and dense palm groves along the Tigris (conducive to concealing weapons caches). The population is primarily Sunni, but the predominantly Shia areas of Babil and Wasit province limit al Qaeda's ability to move freely into safe havens much farther south. Most Sunni insurgents, therefore, moved from east to west, following the arc of roads and highways from the Tigris to Mahmudiya.

Because of the sparsely settled terrain and the force composition south of Baghdad, a series of air assaults comprised the main effort in the region for much of August. By contrast, the operations running concurrently in the Diyala River valley were conducted by a heavy brigade of division cavalry. The air assaults south of Baghdad eliminated enemy positions, such as safehouses and weapons caches, in the arc from Suwayra to Iskandariya.

The key city of Mahmudiya lies on the border of Sunni and Shia zones. It also sits astride the north-south line of communications that extremist militias used to push northward from Karbala to Baghdad; and on the east-west route along which al Qaeda operatives traveled from the Euphrates to the Tigris. U.S. forces consistently worked to eliminate insurgents from Mahmudiya during the major offensives, and they drove al Qaeda further south toward Karbala and Babil. Operations in Mahmudiya targeting facilitation of foreign terrorists south of Baghdad thus led coalition forces to a major figure within AQI, Abu Usama al-Tunisi, in the third week of September. This Tunisian-born terrorist oversaw the movement of foreign terrorists in Iraq. He was a close associate of and likely successor to Abu Ayyub al-Masri, the leader of AQI. Coalition forces killed him in an airstrike on September 25, near Musayyib, on the road from Mahmudiya to the Shia holy cities.

In mid-September, the main effort shifted closer to Baghdad. Hawr Rajab is farmland in Arab Jabour wedged between three important areas: the farmland closer to the Tigris that U.S. forces cleared in June; the Mahmudiya-Baghdad highway; and Baghdad's southernmost neighborhood, Abu Disheer, which is primarily Shia and sits on the underbelly of Dora. Like Arab Jabour generally, Hawr Rajab lacked American troops and Iraqi security forces prior to the summer of 2007, and was therefore an exporter of weapons to Baghdad. Before U.S. and Iraqi forces arrived, al Qaeda exerted extreme pressure on Abu Disheer from its strongholds in Dora and Hawr Rajab; Shia militias defended Abu Disheer and attacked from that location into Dora. U.S. forces fought to control Hawr Rajab in September and October in order to stabilize Arab Jabour and to tamp down the violence in Baghdad proper by weakening the regions that supplied weapons and fighters to al Qaeda in Dora.


U.S. forces thus moved from clearing operations in former enemy sanctuaries to the next stage, called maintenance operations, by which they controlled and retained cleared territory. Holding terrain is troop-intensive, and it requires offensive as well as defensive operations. In past years, U.S. forces relied almost exclusively on Iraqi security forces to preserve gains after clearing operations, because of lack of troops and because of the focus on a rapid transition to Iraqis. U.S. forces in 2007 likewise relied on their partner units in the Iraqi army and Iraqi police, and the greater number of Iraqi and American troops meant that more soldiers were available to hold terrain. The cooperation of Iraqi citizens, serving as interim and regular police, increased the ability of all forces to hold terrain.

The rejection of al Qaeda by the Ramadi sheikhs in late 2006 has been widely reported. General Petraeus transformed the tribal movement in Anbar into a national phenomenon supportive of government institutions. U.S. commanders fostered grassroots movements throughout Iraq, methodically negotiating security agreements with local officials, tribes, and former insurgent leaders. They thus achieved one of the major objectives of the counterinsurgency strategy by reconciling much of the Sunni population with the government.

Diyala Province, which has an extremely complex network of Sunni, Shia, and mixed tribes, illustrates the complementary relationship between improving security and movements of concerned citizens. As U.S. forces reconnoitered Baquba and its vicinity, some locals who had once fought the Americans as insurgents began cooperating with U.S. and Iraqi security forces against al Qaeda. These leaders helped U.S. forces clear enemy sanctuaries during the summer offensive by revealing enemy positions and weapons caches. For example, members of the 1920s Brigades--a Sunni insurgent group that operated alongside al Qaeda until May--in Baquba identified the specific locations of rigged houses and deep-buried IEDs before the city was cleared in June. Reconciliation efforts proceeded as soon as U.S. and Iraqi forces had cleared western Baquba, and rippled outward through the Diyala River valley as U.S. forces eliminated the enemy there. Tribal leaders in Diyala recruited locals to guard their communities alongside U.S. and Iraqi forces. Citizens did so with the aim not only of preventing the return of terrorists, but also of joining the Iraqi police and thus supporting the government of Iraq.

The summer offensive widened the scope of the population's movement against al Qaeda and other terrorists. Locals willing to cooperate with Americans and Iraqi security forces might jump-start clearing efforts, as in Hawr Rajab, but few locals turned against al Qaeda before military operations cleared terrorist sanctuaries. Rather, the "concerned local citizens" movements generally spread after U.S. and Iraqi forces, partnered together, cleared an area. For example, after removing al Qaeda leadership in Tarmiya, U.S. conventional forces conducted a series of large, coordinated operations there in mid-September, to remove an illegal court and clear gigantic caches of explosives. These operations set the stage for the concerned local citizens movement in Tarmiya, which had proceeded fitfully in June, July, and August because of al Qaeda's presence in the city. In mid-September, over 1,200 men volunteered within two days to serve as volunteers for a new provisional security group known as the Critical Infrastructure Security Contract Force to help defend Tarmiya, alongside U.S. and Iraqi security forces, and helped to hold Tarmiya against encroaching enemy forces. As of November 1, 2007, approximately 60,000 Iraqis had volunteered to protect their local communities as part of these fully screened and monitored forces.


As the imminent threat from al Qaeda receded, U.S. forces waged an aggressive campaign against Iranian-backed secret cells and extreme elements of Moktada al-Sadr's militia, the Jaysh al-Mahdi. Coalition and Iraqi Special Forces captured and interrogated secret cell leaders throughout Iraq in the months from March through June, prior to the start of Phantom Thunder. In late July, U.S. and Iraqi forces intensified their operations against secret cell leaders in Baghdad, killing or capturing cell leaders and militia members threatening western Baghdad neighborhoods such as Shula, Mansour, Hurriya, Bayaa, and Aamel. Detainees included financiers, weapons traffickers, death squad leaders, snipers, and members of a splinter Jaysh al-Mahdi group that conducted extra-judicial killings. At this time, coalition forces also arrested a major smuggler of Explosively Formed Pentrators (EFPs), a powerful, armor-piercing IED, east of Baghdad and secret cell leaders north of Baghdad in Diyala.

Moktada al-Sadr's movement is based in Najaf, where the Eighth Iraqi Army Division has responsibility for security. In early August, that division, supported by its U.S. advisory team, detained a suspect in Najaf for recruiting and paying Jaysh al-Mahdi militia members from charitable funds to emplace IEDs. The division then arrested the commander of a battalion of a rogue Jaysh al-Mahdi group, and continued the campaign against secret cell leaders nearer its headquarters in Diwaniya.

These campaigns against secret cells led rogue militia and Iranian-backed elements to retaliate. An assassination campaign in August successfully targeted officeholders affiliated with the Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council (which, along with the two other leading Shia parties, Dawa and the Sadrist Trend, comprised the political bloc that originally helped Prime Minister Nuri al Maliki to power). Another assassination campaign targeted Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani's aides in southern provinces. The disturbances became more widespread. On August 28, rogue militia elements or special groups disrupted the Shia pilgrimage in Karbala. These elements attempted to shoot their way past mosque guards, but failed. The Iraqi army secured Karbala and helped evacuate the thousands of pilgrims. Prime Minister Maliki traveled to Najaf on September 5 and met with the grand ayatollah. According to an official press release, Maliki and Sistani talked about "technocratic" government and about security in the holy cities.

The incident prompted Moktada al-Sadr to issue a statement once again requesting that militia members loyal to him lay down their arms. U.S. and Iraqi forces continued to target rogue elements of the militia that did not respond to Sadr's request throughout September and October.


Clearing al Qaeda out of its strongholds in Dora, Ameriya, and Adhamiya reduced violence in Baghdad. Former insurgents in Ameriya introduced the anti-al Qaeda, concerned citizens movement to Baghdad in May. In early August, residents of Adhamiya stormed the Abu Hanifa mosque, an al Qaeda stronghold. Residents, tribal sheikhs, government officials, and U.S. commanders developed a new Critical Infrastructure Guard Force to protect important facilities in Adhamiya. The summer offensives in Hawr Rajab reduced the supply of fighters and materiel to Dora, making it more difficult for the enemy to reinfiltrate that neighborhood. In addition, the Phantom Strike offensive aggressively targeted the Karkh-Rusafa car bombing network, which al Qaeda had supplied from the belts, reducing the number and lethality of vehicle bombs in Baghdad.

In northwestern Baghdad, "murders are down from a peak of over 161 reported murders per week a year ago to less than 5 per week now, and our continued efforts to defeat sectarian expansion continue to drive these numbers down," reported Colonel J.B. Burton, the sector's commander, in mid-October. "IED and small arms attacks are down from a peak of 50 per week in June to less than 5 per week since the end of August. And Vehicle-Borne IED attacks are down nearly 85 percent thanks to our combined efforts to defeat the Karkh VBIED and IED networks--which has had a tremendous impact on insurgents' ability to instruct and employ those types of weapons effectively." The campaign against rogue militias has improved security.

The elimination of important secret cell leaders in western Baghdad has reduced EFP attacks in northwestern Baghdad dramatically. According to Colonel Burton: "Very rarely do we find an effective EFP within our . . . former . . . EFP hot spots, given the increased participation of local nationals in helping us to find these weapons, the increased responsiveness of the Iraqi security forces to defeat these cells and the increased effectiveness of our targeting operations to defeat the entire network." The operations against secret cells in the northern belt recently exposed several large caches of EFPs in Diyala Province, probably intended for Baghdad.

Generals Petraeus and Odierno have conducted a sophisticated counterinsurgency campaign aimed at securing the population of Iraq, and at the development of political, economic, and communications infrastructure to support the overarching political objectives. In addition, they coordinated simultaneous and successive military operations throughout Iraq, rather than concentrating on one region. Their campaign is the largest and longest sustained offensive that America has undertaken in Iraq so far. The operations have severely disrupted al Qaeda's ability to project power into Baghdad by denying the group sanctuaries, fragmenting the belts, destroying support networks, and eliminating key personnel. Operations against Shia militias and Iranian extremists have reduced their ability to take advantage of al Qaeda's demise in order to advance their sectarian agenda. This theater-wide effort has been aimed at securing the population using all military instruments available to the coalition; it did not prefer special forces to conventional forces, but rather used them synergistically.

Generals Petraeus and Odierno pursued a vision of local-level reconciliation aimed at supporting the overarching political goals. They recognized that national politics and legislative agendas would not determine whether violence fell. The security facilitated by the military operations accelerated the spread of local efforts to turn against al Qaeda. U.S. commanders catalyzed those efforts in former insurgent safe havens once they were cleared. Commanders are therefore trying to connect these local movements to the provincial and national government.

U.S. and Iraqi troops have fought side by side in these campaigns. The Iraqi army and Iraqi police are more capably conducting long operations. Some units still need Americans at their side, and others need them at their back as they assume new responsibilities. American troops also play a critical role in persuading the government of Iraq to accept the new military and political realities, including a Sunni community that is willing to support the government in order to participate in political decisions.

Enemy groups will attempt to regenerate. American troops play an important role in preventing the enemy from reestablishing sanctuaries. Holding territory, particularly in urban areas, requires continuous military operations based on sophisticated intelligence. The development of an economic and political capacity helps maintain our gains.

The theater-wide offensives were meant to buy time for the government of Iraq to develop the institutions of governance. The fragmentation of Al Qaeda in Iraq, extremist militias, and secret cells has only just happened. The opportunity to negotiate a political settlement now belongs to the government of Iraq. It is too soon to know what the Iraqis will do. But clearly, this skillful military operation has created new realities on the ground. With violence falling sharply, Iraqis are no longer mobilizing for full-scale civil war, as they were at the end of 2006. Whether the political developments that were always the ultimate objective of the surge can be brought to fruition remains to be seen.

Kimberly Kagan is president of the Institute for the Study of War in Washington, D.C., and an affiliate of the John M. Olin Institute for Strategic Studies at Harvard University. Her periodic Iraq Report explaining military operations is available at and