By Kelly Edwards
Iraq’s deteriorating security situation and the recent attacks on the Abu Ghraib and Taji prisons have demanded a visible response by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Maliki’s response has centered on the “Revenge of the Martyrs” security campaign, led by the Baghdad Operations Command, that targeted the areas north and west of Baghdad. Reportedly, hundreds of individuals have been arrested and several weapon caches were seized. However, the Iraqi Sunni community has been further antagonized by the indiscriminate arrests of Sunni males. Despite this campaign, al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) has continued to demonstrate its ability to operate and carry out attacks in Baghdad and surrounding provinces. As the security challenges continue to mount, Prime Minister Maliki is struggling to provide stability in the security and political arenas. As Iraq heads towards the national elections in 2014, Maliki’s opponents will continue to exploit his weakening security performance.
The United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI) announced that July was the deadliest month since 2008 with 3,383 casualties. In the aftermath of the Abu Ghraib and Taji prison attackson July 21 that freed an estimated 500 prisoners from Abu Ghraib, Interpol announceda security regional alert on July 24. Many of the escaped prisoners were reportedto be senior leaders of al-Qaeda. On July 29, a week following the Abu Ghraib and Taji prison attacks claimed by AQI, Baghdad and surrounding areas experienced a wave of attacks using vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices (VBIEDs). The next day, al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) claimed the VBIED wave and announcedthe beginning of a new campaign, “The Harvest of the Soldiers.” With the security situation spiraling downward, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is under great pressure to respond.
The Revenge of the Martyrs campaign
As Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces, Prime Minister Maliki controls the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF). Soon after taking office, Maliki placedtrusted commanders, most of them Shi‘a Arab, in important positions throughout the security forces. On May 21, 2013 Maliki announceda number of changes in leadership within the ISF. The deteriorating security situation in Iraq likely put pressure on Maliki to make these changes to demonstrate that security was a top priority.
Facing pressure from political opponents, Prime Minister Maliki initiated a large-scale security campaign in an attempt to regain control of the security situation in Baghdad and surrounding areas. On August 1, 2013, Maliki announced a crackdown on terrorism, specifically targeting AQI. Maliki blamed the Abu Ghraib and Taji prison attacks on third parties “who wish to defeat Iraq through terrorism.” He also called for security forces to rise to their responsibilities, for the intelligence services provide actionable intelligence on terrorists, and for the Iraqi people to support the campaign and provide information on terrorists’ movements. This security campaign has thus far had mixed results.
On August 2, two protests took place in Baghdad. One commemorating Quds Day in Firdous Square, led by the Sadrist Trend and the Maliki-allied Badr Organization, was allowed to proceed. In contrast, an anti-government protest in Liberation Square was forcibly shut down by the ISF and a number of demonstrators were arrested. This disparity in response illustrates Maliki’s ISF-focused strategy towards anti-government protests and in particular the view that Sunni-majority protests are havens for terrorists, especially after the escape of prisoners from Abu Ghraib. Continued crackdowns on protests, however, have not been effective from a security standpoint and have generally served to increase dissent.
The official security campaign calledthe “Revenge of the Martyrs” was implemented on August 1 in Baghdad and is ongoing. The campaign is being ledby Baghdad Operations Command (BOC) with anti-terrorism forces and Ministry of Defense security forces, with support from Iraqi Army (IA) aviation. The security operation includes inspections and searches in targeted areas including areas north and west of Baghdad, often referred to as the Baghdad belts.
A statement from the BOC on August 2 announced the alleged death of nine AQI militants and estimatedthat 100-300 individuals were arrested. Varying reportsstate that of those arrested, only 32-85 wanted individuals were arrested according to Article 4 of the Anti-Terrorism law, 141-192 individuals were arrested for being suspected of involvement in terrorism, and 10-26 other individuals were arrested on various other charges. Reports dated August 7 estimated that 400-500 individuals have been arrested during the Revenge of the Martyrs campaign. A statement from the Iraqi Ministry of Interior reported that the security efforts over the past few days have resulted in the arrests of 352 escaped prisoners from Abu Ghraib. This follows an earlier announcementfrom the BOC on July 28 that 349 escaped prisoners had been recaptured from the prison attacks on July 21.
In addition to arresting hundreds of individuals, Iraqi security forces (ISF) seizedsupplies and explosives. Sources reported the seizure of 35-76 vehicles, 22-37 motorcycles “with forged documents,” and 14 boats. Security forces also seized weapon and explosive caches that included an estimated 219 improvised explosive devices (IED) and adhesive explosive devices (AED). Additionally, ISF discoveredand destroyed 3-7 alleged terrorist hideouts and three car bomb factories. A security source also reportedthat there was a heavy deployment of security forces to checkpoints in Baghdad on August 4th due to intelligence concerning future attacks in the area that would target civilians. Member of Parliament Hassan Jihad reportedthat tightened security measures around the Green Zone in central Baghdad included an increased number of checkpoints and the closure of some bridges.
The 24th Brigade of the 6th Division of the IA operates in the Abu Ghraib area, approximately 30km outside of Baghdad. A BOC statementclaimed that they had successfully killed an AQI leader and arrested the leader’s assistant. In Taji, north of Baghdad, the 9th Division of the IA has also led military operations throughout the area. On August 6 Prime Minister Maliki visitedthe 9th Division headquarters to meet with military commanders to be briefed on the situation and status of the security operations. Maliki also participated in a “field inspection tour of the military forces” which included the areas of Taji, Tarmiya, Hor Al Basha, Sheikh Ahmed, and other areas in the outskirts of Baghdad. In a statement, Maliki apologized to the Iraqi people in these communities who had been “harassed” by security forces and called for them to support the current security operation.
Concomitant security operations were implemented in the Salah ad-Din, Ninewa, and Diyala provinces. Operations in Mosul involved the 3rd Division of the Iraqi Federal Police and the 2nd Division of the Iraqi Army. A Ministry of Interior statement reportedthat the 3rd Division of the Iraqi Federal Police was operating in Mosul and had successfully arrested two terrorists and seized a weapons and explosive cache. Other reports also statedon August 5 and 6 that the police force arrested 23 individuals in southern and eastern Mosul and discoveredseveral weapons and explosive caches. Similarly, the 2nd Division of the IA allegedlyseized weapon caches and an explosive factory in the “Googalchi” area located in northern Mosul.
The Diyala Police Commander Brigadier Jamel al-Shimari announcedthat Prime Minister Maliki had ordered the targeting of terrorists and their supplies in proactive security operations in Diyala. A joint security force led by Shimari has reportedly raided areas in Salah ad-Din and northern Diyala. These operations led to the foiling of a large suicide truck carrying 17 barrels of C4 explosive. The bomb was intended to target Muqdadiyah, however security forces were able to kill the suicide bomber who was later was identifiedas a Saudi individual. Additionally, Tigris Operation Command conducteda security operation in the Hamrin Mountains that led to the death of 11 “insurgents” and the arrest of 25 other individuals, and the seizure of weapon and ammunition caches.
A Diyala security source reportedon August 10 that security forces on foot and in vehicles have been deployed to reinforce the roads surrounding Baquba. These roads include the areas around Imam Wais and Hamrim, northeast of Baquba, and Khanaqin to the north of Baquba. The source stated that these tightened security measures were to ensure civilian safety during the final days of Ramadan, Eid al-Fitr, and to collect intelligence concerning militant groups and their intentions. Another Diyala security source reportedthat Diyala security forces had decided to ban all motorcycles from Baquba during the holiday.
In the Salah ad-Din province, the Salah ad-Din Police Operations Command announced the implementation of a security plan with the cooperation of the 4th Division of the IA and Ministry of Interior security forces for Eid al-Fitr. The security plan included increased deployment of forces and a number of checkpoints around markets and parks, as well as greater force deployment on the roads. The Salah ad-Din Police Chief also announced the arrest of four individuals under Article 4 in Shurqat and the dismantling of a car bomb in Baji.A joint army and police force carried out a security operation on August 7 in Sulaiman Beg, east of Tikrit. A Salah ad-Din police source reported that the operation led to the death of soldier and nine militants and the arrest of 14 other militants, who were taken for interrogation. On August 2 the 17th Brigade of the 4thDivision conducted a security operation between Anbar and Salah ad-Din near an oil line located west of Tikrit. An anonymous source reported that two gunmen and an individual who trained suicide bombers for prison attacks were killed. The IA force also discovered and seized explosive belts, weapons, silencers, documents, and an explosive factory.
Security operations in northern Babil have been reported to be successful. Babil Police Director Major General Abbas Shimran announcedthat the “anticipatory security operations” in northern Babil resulted in the discovery of weapons caches and the arrests of 65 wanted individuals. Shimran stated that AQI had been weakened and that the success of security operations was a result of cooperation between the security forces, tribal leaders, and civilians.
Evaluating the Revenge of the Martyrs campaign
Under political pressure to be seen to stabilize the deteriorating security situation, the Ministry of Interior and Prime Minister Maliki are incentivized to present the Revenge of the Martyr campaign as a great success. Statements from BOC about arrests of supposed AQI members have served the purpose of promoting this success of the security forces. Interestingly, these statements imply a small number of casualties compared to the size of the arrests. The lack of firefights in the Baghdad belt area suggests that the ISF are arresting more unarmed civilians than AQI members, especially when compared to the number of casualties seen in operations in Salah ad-Din and the Hamrin mountains. Unlike in Baghdad, reports of these security operations indicatedthat several insurgents and soldiers were killed.
Large VBIED waves have routinely occurred on either Sunday or Monday of each week throughout the months of June and July. During the week of the Revenge of the Martyrs campaign, however, a VBIED wave did not occuruntil Tuesday, August 7, and was significantly smaller than usual, with only seven explosions focused in Baghdad. While circumstances for the delay are unknown, the security campaign could have potentially caused the VBIED wave to be delayed and minimized. However this disruption will likely only be short-term, and VBIED waves are likely to continue to occur. With the recent release of AQI members from Abu Ghraib, AQI has to absorb a new human network and reset to begin their new campaign, “Soldier’s Harvest.”
A large VBIED wave on August 10 hit Baghdad and areas to both north and south, including Tuz Khurmato, Karbala, Kirkuk, and Nassiriyah. Media sources estimated150-293 casualties from the explosions. Despite the media reports of numerous casualties, BOC Lieutenant General Abdul Amir al-Shamiri reported that the Ministry of Health had stated that one military personnel and civilian each were killed and an estimated 28 civilians injured. Shamiri statedthat the inflation of casualties and car bombs constituted “huge media intimidation.” On August 11, a Ministry of Interior statementreported that there were 21 individuals killed and 112 were injured in the explosions. The statement stressed that the security operations had forced AQI to target less populated areas, causing the smaller casualty count. It further accused media sources of “fabricating” casualties and news.
The pattern of attacks in Baghdad suggests the existence of a multi-cell VBIED configuration operating in and around the city. These cells have been targeting southeast, southwest, and northwest Baghdad. During the past two VBIED waves, all targeted areas were in the east and south of Baghdad, and there was a notable decrease in attacks in the north and northwest areas of Baghdad. With the Revenge of the Martyr campaign having focused on the northwest area of Baghdad, the northwestern VBIED cell has potentially been engaged by or forced to hide from the ISF and thus has been unable to operate with accordance to the other cells. While this strategy appears to have met with success in reducing VBIEDs in that particular quadrant, it has also demonstrated a key limitation: separate cells have continued to hit the city’s other quadrants. It is inefficient for ISF to only focus on targeting north and west of Baghdad because there are visibly other VBIED cells successfully operating in east and south Baghdad. If ISF wishes to effectively prevent AQI VBIED waves, it cannot ignore the other cells operating throughout Baghdad and the surrounding belts.
Effects and implications
The Revenge of the Martyrs campaign has exacerbated complaints among Iraq’s Sunni Arabs of harassment under the guise of counter-terrorism operations. During Friday prayers on August 9, a number of preachers made statements expressing their disapproval of the indiscriminate arresting of Sunni males in the Baghdad belt and surrounding areas. In Baquba, Sheikh Adnan al-Janabi calledfor the central government to halt the “arbitrary arrests” and for a security system that functions without discrimination. Janabi insisted that security could not be achieved through the security forces’ current tactics, and that the innocent detainees were a sign of the government’s failure to maintain security. In Samarra, Mohammed al-Samarrai accusedthe government of attempting to empty the Sunni neighborhoods in the Baghdad belts. Indiscriminate operations against Sunni Arab communities will only serve to exacerbate tensions with the ISF, fuelling further anti-government protests, and may ultimately produce sympathy for attacks on the ISF, if not for AQI’s core aims and objectives.
BOC continues to enhance its security position in Baghdad. It announcedon August 9 a new project to build six watchtowers and deploy several airships to better monitor and control areas of Baghdad. Plain-clothed intelligence officers have been deployed across the city to act as an “invisible force” to assist in monitoring for any suspicious activity. BOC spokesperson Brigadier General Saad Maan stated that the Revenge of the Martyrs campaign was only the beginning of the fight against terrorism. The aim, he announced, is to bridge the communication gap between the military and civilians. The Ministry of Interior has set up “hotlines” as a way for civilians to report any information concerning terrorist activities. Maan statedthat the information from the hotlines has already led to the discovery of weapon caches and the arrest of several individuals.
Following the prison attacks, leaders and elements of the Sahwa fledthe Baghdad, Abu Ghraib, Samarra and Anbar areas fearing potential revenge from the escaped prisoners – a probability raised by Sahwa leaders who announceda “state of emergency” for current and former Sahwa members on July 24. According to Sahwa leader Mohammed al-Hamdani, the ISF’s Ground Forces Command promised Sahwa leaders that the army would work to prevent retaliatory attacks. The ISF itself, however, also suffered from defections in the aftermath of the prison attacks. On August 8, in an effort to augment the ISF, Maliki issueda general amnesty for security personnel who had deserted after the Abu Ghraib attack, likely prompted by fear of punishment in response to the colossal security failure. In response to Maliki’s announcement, 2nd Infantry Division Commander Major General Ali Furaiji statedthat the division would be accepting individuals wishing to return to the service in Mosul. Maliki also promisedon August 7 that the government would allocate “financial rewards” for service members that had participated in the Revenge of the Martyrs campaign, as well as compensation to the families of those killed in the campaign. These payments, read in combination with the amnesty to deserters, suggest serious concern about ISF morale and retention.
The Revenge of the Martyrs security campaign is an important component of Prime Minister Maliki’s response to the highly visible security failures that led to the prison attacks in Abu Ghraib and Taji. While the operation has achieved some tangible successes, it has not halted attacks and has exacerbated existing tensions. The Interior Ministry has continually promoted the operations success and sought to downplay subsequent AQI attacks. However, increasing friction with the Sunni community in reaction to ISF’s indiscriminate arrests of Sunni males could add to the mounting instability. If the Sunni community becomes more concerned with ISF’s targeting than the threat of AQI, this could be an indicator of trouble ahead for Iraq. While the campaign has apparently reduced AQI capacity in the north and west areas of Baghdad, AQI has continued to demonstrate its ability to operate in other areas around Baghdad and surrounding provinces. With AQI’s recently announced campaign, the group seems not to have slowed its operational tempo and potentially stands to gain from the influx of escaped prisoners from Abu Ghraib. To be successful, the ISF must also target other AQI cells operating throughout Baghdad rather than just the northwest. Mounting political pressure has caused the ISF to overreact to the AQI threat generally and the prison attacks in particular. This approach will lead to further political discontent within the Iraqi Sunni community. The key for Prime Minister Maliki at this critical moment in Iraq lies in finding the balance between successfully promoting security and establishing an inclusive political order.
Kelly Edwards is a Research Intern at ISW.