Fallujah, Iraq

OPERATION LIGHTNING HAMMER in Diyala province--part of Operation Phantom Strike--has flushed scores and perhaps hundreds of insurgents out of the Diyala River Valley northeast of Baqubah. At the end of last week, some al Qaeda fighters "counter-attacked"; not against the Coalition of course, but against innocent civilians. Initial reports suggested an undaunted insurgency. But as the details of the story emerged, they suggested quite the opposite.

Many of the al Qaeda fleeing Operation Lightning Hammer have headed south along the seam formed by Coalition forces moving in strength between Baqubah and Baghdad--the way west was blocked by a screen of air assault squadrons, and the way north was blocked by the troops heading down from the north end of the valley.

A little over a week ago, some of those fleeing were stopped near Kanan, a town several miles west of Baqubah, by what the military describes as "concerned local nationals"--basically, one of the neighborhood watch groups that are springing up all over Diyala province.

Unfortunately for the insurgents, the local tribal sheiks had recently sworn allegiance to the central government, alliance to the Coalition, and enmity to al Qaeda. A firefight ensued and the al Qaeda group was hit hard, reportedly losing some 15 fighters in the engagement.

Several days later, around sunrise on the morning of August 23, the al Qaeda fighters returned, armed for revenge.

Initial reports had the number of attackers around 200, butinitial reports in Iraq are almost always wildly exaggerated. Elements of the 3rd Brigade Combat Team of the 1st Cavalry Division (one of the units involved in the Lightning Hammer clearing operations) arrived later that day to do battle-damage assessments and interview the locals.

According to their reports, this is what happened:

In coordinated attacks that began around 6:15 a.m., al Qaeda fighters struck at two small villages outside Kanan. The attacks lasted approximately three hours. About 25 gunmen attacked the village of Sheik Thar to the east of Kanan, while about 18 attacked the village of Sheik Younnis to the west.

During the attack, ten villagers were killed and eleven more injured, while 14 civilians were kidnapped--nine women and five children. The kidnap victims were related to Sheik Younnis, who was killed in the attacks. An Iraqi Army checkpoint was attacked, also near the village of Sheik Younnis. A mosque was also damaged (no word on the extent of the damage, but I was told that it was still standing--contrary to initial reports). In addition, two houses and an Iraqi Police checkpoint were destroyed by explosives.

The villagers fought back, joined eventually by Iraqi Police. Local sources claimed many al Qaeda killed, but no word on how many; according to Sheik Thar, who survived the attacks, Al Qaeda loaded their dead onto trucks. There is no word on the fate of the hostages.

Incidents such as this, horrifying as they are, need to be seen in their true light. The attackers of the Kanan incident did their cause no good at all. According to the military, many villagers told the visiting brigade commander that al Qaeda's brutality would only stiffen their resolve and cause other nearby villages to stand up against them.

Al Qaeda is no longer master of events in Iraq. Since the surge in operations--and particularly since the start of Phantom Strike--they have lost the initiative. They attacked when and where they did because they are on the run and getting no local support. The attack was forced upon them by the dilemma they face: what to do with their weapons.

On the move like this, exposed and with one safe haven after another falling to the Coalition, their weapons are a millstone. There are checkpoints and random patrols all over the place. If they keep their weapons, they risk being identified as insurgents and captured or killed. The surge in both Coalition and Iraqi Security Forces has been accompanied by a significant increase in the number of checkpoints on the major roads in the region. And now that the tribes are turning against them, the back-roads too have become dangerous. That is how the fleeing al Qaeda were ambushed to begin with--which is what led to attacks at Kanan.

Faced with this dilemma, many al Qaeda fighters have elected to leave their weapons behind, perhaps to join the increasing numbers of former al Qaeda who are returning to their homes to beg the forgiveness--and receive the justice--of their tribes. The American troops that flooded some 28 locations in the Diyala River Valley turned up an abandoned al Qaeda command post that had only recently been thrown together, with all its communications and other equipment; the clearing operation also netted a small facility to treat the wounded and hundreds of weapons and explosives.

But other fighters have not left their weapons behind. And some of those are now running from one hiding place to another in the farmland that lies east of the Baghdad-Baqubah highway, clinging to a small group of terrified women and children, with combat helicopters flying over head, heavily-armed Coalition troops on the move in every direction, and the end nearly upon them.

Mario Loyola is a fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, is embedded with the Marine Expeditionary Force in western Iraq.

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