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January 9, 2008

New Iraq Offensive Reveals Weakened Enemy

The US began a new offensive in northern Iraq, pursuing al-Qaeda in Iraq and affiliates even further outward towards the border. Military planners expected to meet some significant resistance, as they had predicted that AQI had found some space to regroup. Apparently, that level of resistance has not materialized:

The top U.S. commander in northern Iraq said Wednesday a nationwide operation launched against insurgents was meeting less resistance than expected, but that troops would pursue the militants until they were dead or pushed out of the country.

Maj. Gen. Mark P. Hertling told reporters in Baghdad that in his area of control alone, 24,000 American troops, 50,000 members of the Iraq army and 80,000 Iraqi police were taking part in the offensive against al-Qaeda in Iraq.

Diyala province northeast of Baghdad has not seen the same drop in violence that other parts of the nation have witnessed in the last six months. Commanders say that is because insurgents who were pushed out of Anbar province to the west and out of Baghdad fled north into Hertling's territory, specifically into Diyala.

Operation Phantom Phoenix will take place in three stages, according to Hertling. First, the US forces will clear the area. They will then bring in Iraqi security forces, who will then coordinate with Awakening groups to hold the ground against a resurgence of terrorism. This plan mirrors the successful strategies of last year, which restored order in Anbar when most people considered the situation irretrievable.

One reason resistance has not risen to prediction levels is the probability that AQI got tipped off to the operation. Many of the terrorists have fled without attempting to engage American forces, which proves (a) that they do learn from experience, and (b) they're in full retreat mode. If the US pushes them out of Diyala just by showing up, they will be left with few options. They will have to redeploy over the event horizon -- ie, flee for their lives -- and will likely try to find their way back to the relative safety of Pakistan, perhaps via Iran.

Time and momentum remain on the side of the US and Iraq. The longer we can maintain this pressure, the more trained troops become available from Iraq's own security forces. That gives us increasing saturation for clear-and-hold operations, and puts more of the country back in control of the Iraqi government. It also exposes AQI as an abject failure, a stain on the reputation of Osama bin Laden and a loss that greatly reduces the credibility of radical jihad. By the time we start drawing down our own troops, we will have bridged the gap with many more Iraqis than Americans returning home.


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