Photo by Eason Jordan/IraqSlogger
Multi-National Division-North Commanding General Mark Hertling surveying the terrain near Tikrit.
Many "Tier-1" al Qaeda in Iraq leaders and foreign fighters are among the more than 1,100 suspects snagged by Iraqi and U.S. forces in a coalition sweep targeting al Qaeda in Iraq and its allies in the Mosul area, the top U.S. commander in northern Iraq tells IraqSlogger.
A key quote from the exclusive IraqSlogger interview today with Multi-National Division-North Commanding General Mark Hertling:
"Many of the (1,100+) individual captures are foreign and are involved with suicide bombings, IEDs, VBIEDs, foreign fighter flow, kidnapping/extortion or murder networks."
Here is the full transcript of the Hertling interview:
How many Iraqi and U.S. forces are involved in Operation Lion's Roar?
While not wanting to give the exact numbers, both Iraqi and Coalition forces that have been in the area have seen significantly reinforcements over the last several months to build for this campaign.
The Iraqi Security Forces have had two Iraqi Army Divisions in Ninewa province for several months, operating independently. In January, the GOI and MoD assigned LTG Riyadh as the head of the Ninewa Operations Command to coordinate actions of the IA, the Iraqi Police (IP), the Border Enforcement Police (Directorate of Border Enforcement, or DBE), and the Iraqi Special Operations Forces (ISOF). Recently, the Iraqis have also reinforced the area with National Police (NP) units out of Baghdad, additional ISOF and some Iraqi Air Force elements.
The US has had the 3d Armored Cavalry Regiment Headquarters and several of their units in Ninewa, and they have been reinforced with another Maneuver Battalion, some additional engineer forces, significant Intelligence, Reconnaissance and Surveillance (ISR) assets, more Special Operations and Special Forces, and elements of a Military Intelligence Brigade.
How many suspected enemy forces have been rounded up thus far?
The official count since the start of Operation LION’S ROAR on 10 May (and which changed names to Operation Mother of Two Springs on 14 May) is over 1,100. Of those, over 150 were specific targets, and are believed to be upper tier fighters in AQI, ISI, Nasqabandi, or Ansar Al Sunna. Many of the individual captures are foreign, and are involved with auicide bombings, IEDs, VBIEDs, foreign fighter flow, kidnapping/extortion or murder networks. Many of the remaining 1,100 are either criminals or those who have supported the insurgency or criminal activity.
But the 1,100+ figure is – again – just what has been captured since 10 May. Prior to that period, both US and Iraqi forces were conducting time-sensitive raids and targeting, and there were a variety of AQI/ISI and AAS leaders who were killed or captured, and some of these were named as various Emirs in Ninewa Province or the City of Mosul.
How many of those captured suspects are believed to be members of Al Qaeda in Iraq?
While I can’t give the exact number for security reasons, it is significant, and we have been gathering intelligence that indicates the AQI network knows it has suffered some serious setbacks and is trying to adjust. Those who have been captured are in various stages of interrogation, and many of them are giving us more information about the network, individuals serving AQI in and out of the country, and the atmospherics of the organization.
Who are the most important enemy suspects captured thus far?
Due to intelligence associated with interrogations, I cannot give those names right now. But they range from Foreign Fighter facilitation network cell leaders, to higher level Provincial and City Emirs, Military Emirs, Financial Emirs and Shari’a justice emirs.
Some Iraqi officials and al Qaeda in Iraq spokesmen say many AQI members fled Mosul and Ninewa ahead of Operation Lion's Roar. Do you believe that? From a let's-defeat-the-enemy-standpoint, was it a right or a mistake for the Iraqi government to warn publicly for months of the coming offensive against AQI in Ninewa?
No, I don’t believe that. While I would expect an AQI spokesman to say that to continue the information propaganda that is based on lies (like they did in Diyala Province at the start of Operation Iron Harvest in December, which resulted in the complete disintegration of their AQI network in Muqtadiya), I would suggest that any Iraqi official who said that they don’t really know what’s going on in Ninewa and Mosul.
Prior to the attack we had information that AQI leadership was telling their fighters to go to Mosul and Ninewa in anticipation of a major battle there. And we tracked much, but not all, of that movement. We also saw a spike in violence and attacks throughout the months of January-May when insurgents were intent on attacking the Combat Outposts (COPS), traffic control points (TCPs) and IP and IA stations that were being built by extensive engineer efforts in Mosul to contribute to the security of the citizens. This was an attempt by AQI to maintain their freedom of maneuver and action throughout the city. It was our analysis that they were specifically attacking certain COPs and TCPs, and reinforcing their fighters to do this, as indicated by the number of attacks and significant activities recorded in the city. When the curfew was set on 10 May, that was a surprise to most of those in Mosul and the province, and we have intelligence evidence of that. Without the ability to move with vehicles, and the “Riyadh Line” being closed around the city, it would have been very difficult for anyone inside the city to leave.
It is our belief that the many extremists and criminals that are in the city are laying low for now, for two reasons: one is the extensive military and police operations continue to go on in every neighborhood, finding caches, weapons, and detaining targets; two, they do not know what to anticipate, and there is a fear that if they conduct attacks they will immediately be arrested or detained.
Do you believe the top AQI leadership remains in the Mosul area?
Yes, there are some top AQI leaders in the Mosul area. But they have also replaced a variety of Emirs with less competent individuals, and we have much intelligence that says there is infighting among the leadership within AQI and between AQI and AAS/ISI and Nasqabandi.
Does AQI's center of gravity remain in Ninewa or is it moving?
Using the true Clausewitzian definition of “Center of Gravity,” – which is defined as the item which gives a force its power and must be protected at all costs -- I would suggest that what remains in Ninewa and Mosul is a Decisive Point to the defeat of AQI, versus a center of gravity. AQI wants to maintain their grip on this city, and this province, for historical and philosophical reasons. If AQI loses the battle for Mosul, and they are displaced, they may remain defeated in this area but they are not destroyed. And for that reason, we will continue to pursue whatever remains. Their financial networks and arms networks – as well as other, smaller support cells throughout the country – must also be destroyed to ensure there is no reemergence of this threat to good Iraqi people an the Govt of Iraq.
How many enemy suspects have surrendered peacefully and been granted amnesty by the Iraqi government? Are any of those AQI suspects?
Not many. But some. Those that have are giving us some very good intelligence on the networks.
When the amnesty offer expires in a few days, what's next in Ninewa?
We will continue operations with the Iraqi Security Forces, in the Jazeera desert (west and south of Mosul), and in other key cities/towns where we believe the enemy is attempting to find safe-haven.
But also of critical interest is the Government of Iraq’s program to bring significant amount of aid to Ninewa and Mosul There is currently a team in Mosul – at the Direction of PM Maliki -- coordinating with provincial officials to distribute a significant amount of GOI funds to restore infrastructure in the province and repair war-damaged facilities, while also helping get people back to work. Additionally, the Minister of the Interior also allocated the funding for the recruitment and training of thousands of additional police forces, and the Minister of Defense has allocated spaces for plus ups in the Iraqi Army in the 2d and 3d IA Divisions, which are located in Ninewa.
What do you think explains the surge this year in female suicide bombing attacks?
We believe it is a specific recruitment drive for women who are wives or daughters of extremists and terrorists who have been killed in action. Over the last few months we have seen a total of 8 female suicide bombers – both SVEST and those driving cars – in the four northern provinces, and we have indications that four more have been recruited from one family. Additionally, there is a stigma with being a widow in Iraq – and this is especially true of being a widow of an terrorist – and we believe this contributes to the successful recruitment of these women. This weekend, we had two in Baquba...one wearing a vest (that was stopped by a Son of Iraq, when she was attempting to get into an area where a SOI meeting was being held), which was followed 5 minutes later by another female driving a Suicide Car bomb less than 400 meters away targeting first responders.