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Iraq Diary

Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps continues to train and arm Shia extremist groups in Iraq attempting to attack U.S. bases with a crudely built, but potentially very deadly, improvised rocket-assisted mortar, or what the military calls IRAM, Iraq commander Gen. Ray Odierno told Defense Tech this morning.

IRAM is basically a flying IED, consisting of a propane tank or other canister stuffed with explosives and launched by a rocket motor from simple rails mounted in a flat-bed truck into a base or outpost. It’s the quantity of explosives contained in the crude devices which makes them so deadly; some contained upwards of 100 pounds of high explosive. The crude Katyushas are parked near a base’s perimeter wall, the rails angled toward the target, and the rockets launched over the walls.

A group named Kataib Hezbollah, Iranian funded and controlled by Tehran, has received specialized training in Iran in the use of the Katyusha like IRAM, Odierno said at the press roundtable. “They’re very primitive… but it can cause mass casualties,” he said. Shia groups have attempted a number of IRAM attacks over the past few years, although most have failed. The latest intelligence indicates Kataib Hezbollah has refined the weapon and their tactics and over the last few weeks have been preparing some kind of mass attack, Odierno said.

[Continue reading…]

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U.S. military officials confirm that Al Qaeda in Iraq’s leader, Abu Ayyub al-Masri, was killed in an attack on the house where he had holed up in the Iraqi city Thar-Thar, 50 miles west of Baghdad. Also killed in the joint Iraqi-U.S. raid was Abu Omar al-Baghdadi, leader of the al-Qaeda affiliated group the Islamic State of Iraq.

Over at the Long War Journal, Bill Roggio provides some good background info on al-Masri. He was hand selected by Ayman al Zawahari to take command of al Qaeda in Iraq after a U.S. air strike killed its founder, Abu Musab al Zarqawi, in 2006. Roggio says the deaths of al-Masri and Baghdadi come on the heels of a series of strikes against AQI’s leadership ranks over the past four months.

“The death of these terrorists is potentially the most significant blow to al-Qaeda in Iraq since the beginning of the insurgency,” said Iraq commander, Gen. Ray Odierno, in a press release on the U.S. Forces Iraq web site. The release says that a U.S. soldier died in a helicopter crash during the raid.

– Greg

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At a New America sponsored discussion yesterday on IEDs in Afghanistan, retired general Montgomery Meigs, chief of the Pentagon’s counter IED task force during the ugliest years in Iraq, gave credit for the big turnaround there in 2007 to two unsung generals: John Abizaid and George Casey.

He said one of the big reasons IED and other attacks dropped so dramatically in Iraq in 2007 was because the Sunni insurgency largely left the battlefield, “the Sunnis stopped putting IEDs out.” Meigs credited Abizaid and Casey’s work with the Sunni tribes in 2006 for the “Awakening” movement and getting the Sunnis to switch sides.

The dramatic drop off in violence in Iraq in 2007 is attributed to a number of factors, including Muqtada-al Sadr’s decision to keep his Shiite fighters sidelined. I think some people also forget that the Sunni insurgents by and large stepped to the sidelines on their own volition long before the “surge” troops arrived in 2007.

– Greg

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For those of you who might have missed it, there is a lot of discussion about this video published on Wikileaks, apparently acquired from a “whistleblower.” The video is gun camera footage from Apache attack helicopters involved in the killing of two Reuters news employees, photographer Namir Noor-Eldeen and driver Saeed Chmag, in summer 2007.

The Army carried out an investigation into the civilian casualties that resulted from the events of July 12, 2007, and the final AR 15–6 report with, supporting documentation, some of it redacted, is up at the Central Command web site.

I agree with Bill Roggio that there is missing footage as no gunships would be cleared hot to shoot anybody carrying a weapon while just cruising around eastern Baghdad. With all of the many different militia hanging out in the city, good and bad, the often out of uniform Iraqi police, thousands of various security guards and just the average citizen carrying around AKs, half that city would have been mowed down.

From reading the CENTCOM documents, the Apaches, from Bravo Company, 1-227th Aviation Regiment, were supporting a large cordon and search operation and were responding to a troops in contact when they opened fire on the group of Iraqis that included the Reuters reporters. The trouble begins when the pilots saw the cameraman peer around the corner and mistook the camera lens for an RPG.

Photos recovered from the Reuters photographer’s camera show that he was snapping shots of a Humvee down the street 100 meters away. The time stamp on the photos show that they were the last ones he took before the Apaches opened fire, according to the reports.

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The withdrawal of American troops from Iraqi cities today marks a turning point for the war in Iraq, and leaves me with mixed feelings about the current situation and the war overall.

I see it as a success that the security situation has improved so much that US forces basically aren’t needed to protect the urban populations anyway. Whether it was an arbitrary date or not, it sort of turned out to be an event-driven one — at least in terms of security. I can’t express the pride I feel for the sacrifice and adaptability of the troops who made this success possible.

I remember being at a small outpost on the outskirts of Balad in July of 2003. My photographer colleague and I hired two seats in a convoy of Suburbans heading out of Amman to a hotel in Baghdad, where we based ourselves for six weeks to cover the beginnings of the occupation.

We went on a raid one night out of the small base — which had no electricity, no air conditioning, no refrigeration — with a group from the 4th ID based on intel gained from a short trip into town by the company commander who slipped in with his translator (terp) wearing a dishdash and driving in a captured taxi cab. This was two months after the “mission accomplished” speech and I was amazed at the initiative of the troops there that early on.

I went to Sadr city then too. The fetid stench of sewage and rotten trash wafting into the gritty dust thrown up by the totally unarmored Humvee we were in. Kids threw rocks at us. “That means they like us,” one Soldier told me. “I think.…”

Then there was the victory lap with Marines in southern towns. The Shiite population there was overjoyed with the US victory and the overthrown Saddam. I was in a small camp in Diwaniyah when Udeh and Kuseh Hussein were killed. There was so much celebratory fire, a Marine standing post on a rooftop nearby was injured when a round came down out of the sky and hit him in the leg.

I remember standing on the street corner just outside what was still not yet called the Green Zone (the troops from the 2nd ACR called it the MOAC: mother of all checkpoints) at 9pm waiting for a driver from the AP to pick me and a couple colleagues up after a trip into the field. I didn’t think for one second that something would happen to me at the time.

Then it all changed from hope to despair.

I returned to a very different Iraq in late 2005. For a month I cowered in the back of a Marine Humvee in Ramadi dodging IEDs on nightly patrols and raids. My first night there in early December, a coordinated IED attack maimed several Marines and killed two after they’d dismounted from a 7 ton truck to fix a Humvee disabled by a previous bomb. I went along on the QRF and watched as Marines picked up combat boots filled with severed feet and legs.

In Hit, we were in the boondocks for a month. The desert “ratlines” that funneled suicide bombers into Iraq from Syria. It was tense but quiet, until a group of insurgents tried to overrun the camp I was in guarded by a single platoon of Marines. We joked together that the Iraq war had turned into the war on drugs — every time you grab an insurgent or uncover a (massive) weapons cache, there’s three more that pop up right alongside it (or him). We were never going to win this war, we thought.

And then it all changed. I remember thinking to myself even after the first trip to Iraq that the main problem was the Iraqis themselves. They refused to act. They refused to reject being cooped in someone else’s failing agenda (the islamists). They failed to stand up for themselves and confront the violence that no one wanted. Why weren’t we guilting them into acting?

Then we did. There was a tipping point there. Not sure when, but something showed the community leaders there that throwing their lot in with AQ wasn’t going to get them where they needed to go. The Iraqis didn’t strike me as particularly radical people — they weren’t ripe for the Taliban or the Iranian mullahs. But something clearly convinced local leaders to side with the US and stand up against AQ. Whether it was the severed head of a cousin to Abdul-Satter Abu Risha delivered to his doorstep that did it or what, I don’t know. But something tipped the balance.

Then it was hard fighting and close teaming and tough, thorough training that got the job done. The troops stuck to their guns. They refused to relent. They bit their tongues when they saw the Iraqi forces acting like idiots. They kept cajoling them into the fight. And they did it. As Steve Colbert said: “We won…”

I went back to the new Iraq in early 2008 and I was stunned. I was also bored. One month with combat units there — Marines and Army — and not a single raid. No incoming rockets. Not even a stray AK round from a Friday wedding party. Everything had changed.

And this is where we find ourselves today.

Am I nervous about how this is all going to shake out? Yes. But I’m confident that Iraq has passed the point of no return. I’m confident that they will not revert to the chaos and jihadist mayhem of 2006 and ’07. DO they have “reconciliation?” No. But do we? Do they have a hydrocarbon law yet? No. But can you even conceive of how complex such a law would be? Could you see the US coming up with one? The only states in the region that have them are theocracies or kingdoms. No one voted on those.

But at the end of the day it’s been a major triumph for our armed forces. Politicians in the US certainly didn’t help much. The troops stuck to the guns, put their heads down and worked hard to make it a success. They didn’t involve themselves in the debates — there is no debate, right? You execute your orders and you do them decisively. The military did way more than they were trained to do. And they did it without complaint and with amazing skill and aptitude.

I am glad to have witnessed and been a part — in a small way — of this very unpopular war. It’s when the chips are down; when nobody says you’ll win; when all support has faded away where character is found. Those who fought, worked and died there had it. And we should be exceptionally proud of those who will never quite brush all that talcum sand out of their boots ever again.

– Christian

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Can we please now say that the “Cut and Run”-ers were dead wrong. That America could be successful in Iraq and that it wasn’t the Sunnis who did it; it was Americans who supported an unpopular “surge” strategy that proved to be the real solution to the security problem…

American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON — The number of daily attacks in Iraq has dropped nearly 95 percent since last year, a U.S. military official said yesterday.

Iraq suffered an average of 180 attacks per day this time last year. But over the past week, the average number was 10, Army Brig. Gen. David G. Perkins, a Multi-National Force Iraq spokesman, said.

“This is a dramatic improvement of safety throughout the country,” Perkins told reporters during a wide-ranging news conference in Baghdad yesterday.

He added that the country’s murder rates have dropped below levels that existed before the start of American operations in Iraq. In November, the ratio was 0.9 per 100,000 people.

– Christian

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…but you wouldn’t know it from the mainstream media.

Military​.com ran a story from our friends at Stars and Stripes which reported the Marines plan to hand over “Provincial Iraqi Control” of al Anbar province on Saturday (June 29).

Once the most violent place in Iraq, Anbar province will come under Provincial Iraqi Control on Saturday, a senior military official said Monday.

So far, nine Iraqi provinces are under Provincial Iraqi Control, or PIC, in which Iraqi security forces perform day-to-day operations and U.S. troops provide assistance as needed, the military official told reporters.

“When you PIC a province, the coalition force goes into what we call an operational overwatch: They’re there, essentially as a security blanket,” the official said.

Though the Washington Post ran a story on its Web site today which lead with the heinous attempt by AQI to disrupt the handover by bombing a provincial council meeting and killing an estimated 20 (which hits pretty close to home for me because I met some of these tribal leaders in the very place where the bombing occurred — see the picture above), the paper edition did not have a story on the handover, nor did the New York Times.

Remember, these were the papers that jumped on the leak of a Marine Corps Intelligence report in September 2006 that Anbar was lost. Wrote the NYTimes:

As the situation has deteriorated, insurgent attacks have increased. The report describes Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia as an integral part of the social fabric of Anbar.

Aside from being flat out wrong on that assessment, the stories painted a grim picture of the situation in Anbar and help solidify impressions (with an election coming up just a month later) that Iraq was a lost cause.

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Our boy Bill Roggio got his hands on some intel that filled in the blanks on that truck explosion in Sadr City this week.

“…the explosions were caused by the premature detonation of a Special Groups improvised rocket launching system. The system, which has been described as a flying improvised explosive device, or airborne IED, had received little attention until yesterdays explosions in Shaab.

“What I find disconcerting is there have been few corrections. This was not an engagement and these were not Special Groups transporting missiles and mortars in a bongo truck.“

The bongo truck was actually the “launch vehicle,” according to bomb experts who surveyed the scene. “This was a crude rocket launching system we call an IRAM [improvised rocket assisted mortars] that prematurely detonated causing the other rockets in the truck to catastrophically exploded,” Stover said. Two Mahdi Army Special Groups fighters were killed in the subsequent explosions, as well as 16 civilians. Twenty-nine civilians were wounded and 15 buildings were severely damaged.

There were five blast sites, the US military reported. The initial blast occurred at the rocket launcher, while the four other rockets were thrown several hundred meters to the east and detonated. “It is believed the intended targets were US Soldiers at [Forward Operating Base] Callahan and while in the final stages of preparing for the attack, for an unknown reason one rocket prematurely detonated causing the remaining rockets to launch and explode erratically.“

I dunno, what’s the difference between an improvised MLRS and an IED? Roggio tries to explain:

While the US military related the IRAM explosions in Sha’ab to the April 28 IRAM attacks on Joint Security Station Thawra I in Sadr City and Forward Operating Base Loyalty, there may be two improvised weapons systems at play. Both the JSS Thawra I and the FOB Loyalty attacks were conducted by pulling trucks right outside of the bases’ blast walls and firing the improvised rockets into bases. The attack on FOB Loyalty resulted in two soldiers killed and 16 wounded.

The US military said the weapons used in the April 28 attacks had a limited range of between 50 and 150 yards, according to a source familiar with the attack who wishes to remain anonymous. The US military said the range and size of the warhead on the IRAMs is classified.

[Continue reading…]

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Here’s an early look at Military.com’s lede story tomorrow morning (barring breaking news, of course). Christian continues his reporting from Iraq, this time focusing on the enemy sniper threat in Tikrit:

They call it the sniper dance.

Youre out in the open. There are houses all around you — cover and concealment for enemy sharpshooters to plink off a U.S. Soldier.

Stand there, wait a few seconds, shift to the right — then do it all over again.

We dont want a sniper to get a good shot off on us, one Soldier says. So we keep moving all the time.

In this home region for the deposed Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, the security that has only recently descended here is tenuous at best. With the Iraqi army largely pushed out of the surrounding towns and villages to help U.S. forces root out the most tenacious holdouts in other areas, the focus here is on building a durable police force that can secure the population and at the same time keep the insurgency from sparking up again.

American Military Police units and the civilian advisors that help them recognize the mandate is a tall order. With corruption a part of everyday life here and a policing philosophy making the transition from being an instrument of oppression to a force that serves the community, putting the local police on the right track takes constant interaction and a deep reservoir of patience.

Our motto is no free chicken, said Staff Sgt. Joe Cline, a platoon sergeant with the 56th Military Police Company, who added their main mission is to cut the Iraqi polices dependence on the U.S. military.

Each of the platoons with the 56th Military Police Company — which is made of Army reservists from a Arizona, California and Nevada — is divided into smaller Police Transition Teams, called PiTTs. Paired with civilian contractors drawn from police departments from across the country, the PiTT teams patrol the towns outside the sprawling Camp Speicher base just to the north of Tikrit, visiting police stations, meeting with their leaders and assessing what needs they have to keep cops on the beat.

At the Tikrit patrol station, MPs wanted to see if a shooting incident that occurred the previous day showed up on the stations log books. After a furious series of mistranslations and fumbling through piles of papers, the Iraqi policeman said he didnt have the shooting — which occurred just a block away — on his books.

That was reported at another station, the Iraqi policeman told the MPs.

Frustrated, the MPs looked at each other with dismay.

Read the rest in the headlines at Military​.com, first thing Monday morning.

And I’m headed for Kansas University tomorrow to be part of a milblogging panel with Jack Holt from DoD’s New Media Directorate and Castle of Argghhh’s John Donovan. I’ll be posting when I can from the road. If any DT readers are in or around Jayhawk Country please stop by the campus and say hello after the panel on Tuesday night.

(Photo by Christian Lowe)

– Ward

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It didnt look like much to me.

I was warned that this place was bad news. That it had been made into a temple for the deceased dictator and that we really shouldnt hang out there for long.

I told them I wanted to go anyway.

(Sorry about the picture quality but I had to shoot it from a speeding Humvee window.)

You can see for yourself, the tomb of Saddam Hussein and the shrine (if you can call it that) thats devoted to him aint much. I mean, check out the trash pile in the dirt to the right. And I expected Lenins tomb-esque lines of devoted followers lining the sidewalk to pay tribute to the dear leader. But no one was there.
Not even a guard to keep vengeful victims of his rule at bay.
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The town of Owja, where Saddam was born and raised, is still a nettlesome mix of disgruntled Sunnis, Baathists and Hussein kin. Its a dangerous place, these Soldiers told me. But judging from the lack of devotion to his final resting place, hes not the local celebrity he once was.

(That’s a picture of the wall leading up to Saddam’s tomb…If anyone can read Arabic I’d like to know what it says. Or maybe a new caption contest?)

– Christian

(Cross-posted at my “From the Front” blog.)

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