Rural versus Urban Insurgency: How We Missed the Enemy's Center of Gravity in Iraq and Why It's Important

The following is a short summary of events in 2005 in Diyala Province that I feel have laid the basis for the internal civil war that is starting to rise it’s head with certain indicators which we can verify---attack on the MeK UN protected camp, raids by Iraqi MoI units into Diyala Province arresting only Sunni’s, the arrest warrant for the leading Sunni VP, al Sadr calling for new elections, threat by Maliki to arrest Sunni members of parliament---and the list goes on. The summary is just a quick overview as specific details would create the writing of a book and as a side comment much of the information is accessible via OSINT-ours as well as the Sunni Salafi/Nationalist groups including as well as the Shia JAM/SJAM video sites.

When I arrived in Iraq in 2005, and was working with TF134 at Abu Ghraib we would see detainees from all over Iraq and depending on what particular named operation was underway we would see a constant flow of detainees arriving from the area where the named operation was underway. Ramadi and Fallujah at that time were the only “household” names that we the military seemed know---outside of Baghdad.

Mandali, Balad Ruz, Baqubah, Muqdadiyah and on to the Syrian border---in 2005 they were not “household” words, but would later come to be associated as one of the most deadliest Sunni/Shia insurgency areas of all of Iraq rivaling that of Baghdad in 2007 and 2008---but this was 2005 through 2007.

In 2005, based on doctrine all detainees that were taken into custody were initially held for a short period of time at the Brigade level and then moved to a Divisional Internment Facility (DIF) where if any information was gained was in theory suppose to flow back down to the Brigade. By mid 2005, the Brigades were screaming that information pertaining to their Area of Responsibility (AOR) being gained at the DIF and then later at Abu Ghraib (JIDC) was not making it back to them in time for follow on operations.

I was approached by TF134 in May 2005 and was asked if I would support the first opening of a Brigade Internment Facility (BIF) and when they mentioned Baqubah ---my response was “Baqubah?-what/ where is it”.

It should be noted that in 2005 there was not the massive biometrics support, DOMEX capabilities, C-IED, or Human Terrain support available to the Brigades that is now common in the Afghanistan theater. There were though small steps being taken in moving towards those capabilities being made by single interrogators, all source CWOs, and BCT Commanders.

Diyala Province for the next nine months convinced me that in a doctrinal sense Diyala was the “Center of Gravity” (CoG) of the Sunni insurgency regardless of insurgent activities in Baghdad, Ramadi, Fallujah, Anbar, or the Syrian border region.

Why Diyala—from a national perspective it was in fact a virtual image of  “Iraq”  if one looked at the ethnic composition of the province, if one looked at the religious family/tribal mixes (Sunni/Shia), had been a previously strong agricultural/brickmaking area, was water rich, had been the historical interface between Arabs and Kurds and then the “forced” arabization by Saddam, it bordered Iran on one side and through the “old Silk Road”  which crossed through it and continuing on to Syria and Lebanon. The “Silk road” created a virtual “Green Cresent” linking Shia populations in multiple countries which I believe is at the heart of the current Sunni/Shia/Kurdish infighting. Who controls the present day “Silk Road” controls the “Green Cresent”.

Why Diyala---from a unconventional warfare perspective it was a perfect match. Pull back/recover areas for fighters from Ramadi and Fallujah and their families, perfect lines of communication (35 miles from Baghdad) which provided technical/financial support as well as leadership/spiritual leadership support, extensive sanctuaries for unobserved training/fighting base camps/caches, built up areas for urban warfare and safe houses, two rivers allowing for uninhibited smuggling routes and concealment, the Green Dome mosque in Baqubah, large number of Sunni tribes who supported the various Sunni insurgent fractions, large number of former military bases and their weapon depots as the US Army did not move into this area until a number of months after arriving in Baghdad) which were tied to the Black Fedeyeen, a strong former Iraqi intelligence Service (ISI) presence, extensive Baathist presence under Saddam, former housing areas of mid and high level Baathists as well as Iraqi military officers and the list goes on. The Baqubah Green Dome mosque takes on added significance for three reasons; 

  1. Zarqawi called for as the leader of his first group the “Global Jihad” in early 2004 from the steps of the Green Dome
  2. Zarqawi had numerous safe houses in and around Baqubah and constantly used them from 2003 through to his killing by JSOC in June 2006
  3. the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) the political wing of QJBR/AQI stated in October 2006 that Baqubah was the capitol of the new Islamic Caliphate

It should be noted that throughout 2005 and 2006 key Baathists that were on the US/Iraqi wanted list moved freely from Syrian to Diyala either by using the old Silk Road system or ratlines that were developed and paralleled the Silk Road.

When I arrived in Baqubah the 3 HBCT 3ID was heavily engaged in dampening down the insurgent fighting, attempting to establish some form of economic development as the central portion of Baqubah really did look at an old Wild West horse town, was attempting to promote a dialogue between the Sunni/Shia tribes and prepare the province for two elections scheduled in 2005 early 2006. When they departed in early 2006---economic development had taken hold, two successful elections where held in Diyala, and at least on the surface the tribes were cooperating. The insurgent through was being basically being “managed”—the various insurgent communities continued to grow in strength and variety (Sunni and Shia).

What struck me from an intelligence perspective was the simple fact that while the Brigade was fully engaged and making some forward progress, it really was just managing the environment and really only responding to the insurgent activities. We were not “seeing” and “understanding” the operational environment thus forcing the ecosystem to respond to the counterinsurgent.

Also from an intelligence perspective in 2005 and 2006, we really did not understand the number, composition (makeup), types of cell structures, and Command and Control  (C2) of the insurgents. This while common for Diyala was also common throughout the rest of  Iraq---we simply did not understand from an intelligence perspective the “conflict ecosystem”. We did not know just how many different Shia and Sunni insurgent groups we were facing outside of the standard names of 1920, Islamic Army in Iraq or what was then being called QJBR (Al Qaeda in the Land of Two Rivers) and then later changed to AQI. What we also did not know was the depth of the use of the lines of communications between Baghdad and Baqubah by literally the elite leadership of the Salafi movements who based themselves in Baghdad as a large urban area allows for more personal security and they did have good operational security.

In late summer of 2005, we caught two breaks---one we identified a core group of 45 Iraqi National Guard IGN) later Iraqi Army (IA) prisoners who had been captured in a sting operation led by the Iraqi Federal Police (IFP-(“Federales”) later renamed Major Crimes Unit (MSUs which were Shia staffed) who were in fact the core Ansar al Sunnah group in Baqubah. Secondly a walk-in source who had extremely close ties to  AQI provided the first clear insight into the number and strength of a number of different Salafi insurgent fractions operating in Baqubah and Diyala province which were previously unknown to us and how they were tied into Ahmad Fadeel al-Nazal al-Khalayleh—the aka al-Zarqawi original group and then later QJBR/AQI.

This individual had been a founding member of the original group formed by Zarqawi in Baghdad even before the US arrived in 2003.

This could lead to another research project---What were the actual ongoing Salafi activities inside Iraq in the late 1990s and early 2000 timeframe and Why was it not known by the US intelligence community?

It should be noted that while we were able to take control of the 45 prisoners and while in fact the US was still in de facto control of the country as there had been no elections we “stumbled” onto a game being waged by the Iraqi NG and Iraqi FP. The game of “I will capture you and then ransom you off for a high bribe as I know your group/tribe has money”. In 2005, a majority of the ING/IA and  the FP/MSU in Diyala Province were Shia as the Sunni’s were refusing to join the organizations based on the resistance being voiced by the Sunni tribes.

With these ‘breaks” we began to reevaluate the “conflict ecosystem”, how it interacted between the various groups, how their C2 functioned and what we could do if we could not physically capture/kill members of those groups to influence those groups. While focused on the Sunni groups we did not heed warnings coming from captured Sunni insurgents of a growing number of Shia insurgent groups also forming in Diyala then spearheaded by the Badr Corp with Badr Corp starting to wear black uniforms and patrolling with AK47s the streets of some areas in Baqubah, and Muqdadiyah and other small towns in Diyala Province.

In late 2005 early 2006, we had a serious mix of an unknown number of Sunni and Shia insurgent groups working throughout Diyala Province to include elements of the PeshMerga (Kurds) who had started to push the separation Green Line as announced by the US into parts of Mandali, Balad Ruz, Baqubah, Muqdadiyah and other towns in Diyala Province which just added to the mix and confusion.

We also started seeing indicators of an early “ethnic cleansing”/””ethnic clashes” movement in late 2005  with a number of suicide bombings---targeting a Shia funeral, the bombing of the Baqubah JCC causing losses on both the Iraqi and US side, murders/assignations in both Sunni and Shia communities culminating in the 2007 bombing of the Shia Gold Dome mosque, selected detainment and beatings by the MSU of Sunni’s, hidden IGN/IA prisons near FOB Normandy and FOB Caldwell holding tortured Sunni’s, multiple raids by the Iraqi MoI Wolf Brigade intro Diyala in 2005 arresting literally hundreds of Sunnis (reason---“bad people-Baathists”). Against this background the Brigade was facing a relentless IED assault and had been forced to divert some of it’s combat power to Ramadi and Fullujah.

So in effect the ethnic atrocities/cleansing that the surge troops had to handle in 2007 and into 2008 had already started in mid 2005 when we the US Army had control of the country. Again we did not place much emphasis on the indicators as we did not understand the ecosystem and what it was trying to “tell us”. We often fell victim to the game of whispers and finger pointing by the competing groups to get us the US Army to arrest a competitor, ,a friend, husband (often referred too as the “Iraqi divorce”), relative, or someone from another tribe and or ethnic group.

Another indicator that was totally missed was just how serious the infighting was between the Islamic Army in Iraq (IAI-a religious secular/nationalist group) on one side together with the Revolution 1920 Brigades (Baathist/nationalist group) against QJBR/AQI which in effect led the Sunni tribes to start the disengagement process from AQI. In some aspects this fork in the road dispute generated by the killings of IAI/1920 fighters by AQI was the actual beginnings of the “Sunni awakenings” not our “surge” which many credit for the Awakening.

We now jump to 2011 with the US withdrawal---since 2005 the Islamic Army in Iraq (IAI) with it’s related support groups have been undergoing a massive refit, rearm and retrain process with rumors of arms supplies and even more money coming in from Saudi Arabia. Evidence of this was a recent attack on a Sunni insurgent (claim was AQI but not confirmed) refit camp near Baqubah which the Iraqi army attacked and failed to clear requiring a strong response by US ground troops and SOF along with air support. If the current Iraqi Army cannot on their own clean that refit camp then just how are they going to hold up against  very well reorganized and rearmed Sunni insurgent groups?

The civil war is in full swing and Iran is driving it—it all goes back to the “Green Cresent” and the old “Silk Road”.

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Comments

I won't pretend to be an expert on all of this but I'll say this much, in reading about Iraq, OIF, and all matters related I've found a relative dearth of information devoted to Baqubah, yet it seems to be a very important area, critical to the understanding of many other events and dynamics within the region. The interactions among and between many different groups were/are ever present there.

The amount of information I've read about Iraq is simply overwhelming. What's worse is that I've probably read only about 10% of what would be necessary to see this issue with clarity.

bumperplate---Actually you are very correct in an interesting way---Why is there a lack of alot of reporting from an area that was one of the major fightening areas rivaling Fulluhja and Baghdad?

I had the same question when I was asked to go to Baqubah--where in the heck is it and was surprised to hear it was on the other side if Baghdad and as the crow flies 40 miles---was surprised actually.

What was not covered in this article was something that could actually be developed into a separate article---namely what were the insurgent TTPs we saw, how did they change, how did we change them and then the reactions by the insurgent communities to those actions of the counterinsurgent and how did the insurgents in Diyala directly impact the TTPs being spread across Iraq.

Side note---at the tactical level in 2005 intel never felt the need to conduct OSINT both on captured videos or monitoring active jihadi websites for battle videos being released by the Sunni/JAM insurgent groups-felt it was propoganda. In the period late 2006 through to 2008 some of the best TTP videos were released to the Iraqi/worldwide insurgent communities by the Diyala groups-- in fact they became the core trainers on new and developing TTPs (ie the Soviet RGP-3 AT hand grenade) for all of Iraq and a number of their videos made it via the Internet into Afghanistan thus influencing the Taliban/HiG/Haqqani groups. The Islamic Army in Iraq and several other groups are in fact still today releasing TTP videos.

What is more interesting is that the follow on BCT after 3HBCT 3ID slacked off meaning did not apply the same amount of military pressure to the insurgents basically giving them a free pass for a year---the next sets of units deployed into Diyala in 2007 paid the ultimate price in regaining control of the Province. They were met by some of the most complex swarm attacks ever seen in Iraq.

So I will always maintain the Center of Gravity was in fact Diyala.

They became the innovators in a number of different ways and greatly influenced operations of other Sunni/Shia ecosystem communities.

We as I had indicated had no forencis capabilities at the BCT levels in 2005 and 2006 so alot of it was done via the interrogator and his interpreters--I was fortunate to have some of the best interpreters who had rolled with the 3ID into Iraq in 2003 and who were still in Diyala and understood the tribal interactions and had some great understanding of the insurgent groups in the area---it was one of the best learning curves I had in Iraq up to then--will never forgot that group of orginal green carded American citizens for the work they did.

We also had no Human Terrain teams the concept which I had proposed(written) to Andrea Jackson (Lincoln Grp) and to COL Fondacaro (in late 2005) who was then commanding the Joint Explosives Defeat Group in Baghdad the forerunner of TF Troy.

The human terrain proposal was geared to provide the intelligence enduser with information that we sorely needed and were not getting even from the national levels and it was proposed to be an integral part of the intelligence collection cycle, BUT we know which direction Human Terrain Teams have gone---basically still not providing the "key" data needed to "see" and "understand" the actions of the insurgent ecosystem communities.