US and Iraqi forces reportedly commenced a new campaign to secure Diyala on Monday, with a report in the Iraqi press indicating that the strategy for the volatile province may be shifting from urban to rural areas.
"Forces from the Iraqi 2nd and 4th Divisions, backed by U.S. troops, started on Monday a wide-scale security campaign to track down armed groups all over the province," a source told the independent news agency Voices of Iraq (VOI).
The source explained that "the operation began by tracking down groups that have strongholds in the Hamrin mountains and in adjacent spots to the area of al-Aazim during the first phase," adding, "Large military divisions will participate in the operation in order to close all outlets to gunmen."
A few weeks ago, Slogger profiled what one American commander called the "miniature plan Baghdad" for Diyala.
An American officer said that its strategy involved imposing a version of the Baghdad security plan in Diyala. US forces are deployed inside the region’s cities as well as forming a ring around the outskirts of urban areas, to cut off the supply lines and routes of passage to militants.
The plan also involves forward deployment of US forces into smaller security bases in the urban areas of the province.
Based on this latest report, it looks as though coalition forces may be shifting resources from urban centers and moving out to comb the mountains for al-Qaeda-affiliated insurgents.
The Hamrin mountain ridge stretches from southwest Kirkuk by the borders with Salah al-Din province to Diyala, with the majority falling under the administrative authority of Diyala. Inhabited by a blend of Arabs, Turkomans and Kurds, the area offers a relatively easy border-crossing into Iraq's neighboring countries.
VOI reported in late April that members of al-Qaeda in Iraq were rumored to be trying to take Hamrin mountain and others areas in the mixed province as strongholds to set up training camps for Arab and foreign fighters.
Rural areas in Diyala province feature a mix of rugged terrain, sprawling agricultural areas, and dense orchards, which have slipped out of the control of the central and provincial governments.
A government-commissioned report about the disintegrating security situation in Diyala sparked such a debate in Parliament last week that Thursday's session was called off after only 30 minutes of discussion.
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki responded to the criticism that his government was unable to provide security by announcing Sunday the creation of a new centralized joint command in Diyala, and his intent to increase the number of police and Army recruits.
Maliki also told reporters Sunday, "In the next few days we will increase the number of troops in the Iraqi Army...and the police on a significant level," without specifying how many security forces would be shifted to the restive province.
Earlier this week, a coalition of 280 local figures, including tribal, military, police, and academics, formed an organization known as the "Baquba Salvation Council" to fight against al-Qaeda in the province.
Last week, Army Maj. Gen. Benjamin R. Mixon told reporters at the Pentagon via satellite hook-up that he did "not have enough soldiers in Diyala province to move that security situation forward." Mixon, commander of Multinational Division-North, expressed satisfaction with the progress in the rest of his domain--Salah ad-Din, Kirkuk, and Sulaymaniyyah provinces--but said that Diyala has left his troops straining to combat the recent spate of violence.
The media widely reported on Sunday that at a press conference in Baghdad US spokesman General William Caldwell "announced that an additional 3,000 forces have been sent to Diyala province," as the Associated Press phrased the development.
Most accounts quote Caldwell as stating, "There is a recognition clearly that up in Diyala there's been an uptick in the violence there," then continue on to place Caldwell's comment of 3,000 additional troops in the context of Mixon's recent request for reinforcements, implying that the Army is responding to the needs of its commanders.
Upon closer examination, its clear that the press missed the more significant part of Caldwell's comment:
"There is a recognition clearly that up in Diyala there's been an uptick in the violence there, due to that fact, General Odinero made the decision to move an additional 3,000 US forces up there over the last six weeks."
If the 3,000 troops have been moved to Diyala "over the last six weeks," that does not necessarily indicate that any troops have been shifted in response to Maj. Gen. Mixon's recent request, or in preparation for the offensive that now appears to have begun.