By Tim Kilbride
Special to American Forces Press Service
Aug. 20, 2007 - Rather than clearly drawn lines in a Sunni vs. Shiia sectarian battle, the driver of much of Iraq's current violence is the murkier struggle for "power and influence," a coalition commander said yesterday. "This is not black and white here. It's all shades of grey, and there's a mixture of extremist elements and terror elements and criminal activity. It's all of the above," said Army Maj. Gen. Rick Lynch, commander of Multinational Division Center and Task Force Marne, during a lunch with journalists.
In conversations with Army Gen. George W. Casey Jr. in 2006, when Lynch was a deputy commander for Multinational Force Iraq and Casey the commander, the two agreed that the biggest motivator for violence in Iraq is the question, "Who's going to be in charge?"
"We came to the conclusion that the primary concern inside of Iraq was a struggle for power and influence. It's naive to believe that all sorts of violence inside of Iraq is Sunni vs. Shiia or Shiia vs. Sunni; that's just not true. And when you find intra-Shiia rivalry, it's primarily a function of the struggle for power and influence," Lynch said. "We see that a lot across our battlespace."
Multinational Division Center's area of operations includes Najaf, Karbala, Babil and Wasit provinces, with additional areas of Baghdad and Anbar provinces. The provinces form what the military calls a belt around Iraq's capital.
"We're way past the point where we lump extremists as 'anti-Iraqi forces,'" Lynch explained. "What you have to do is have great precision as you talk about the enemy. The best question that's out there is, 'Who is the enemy?'"
There are many layers to the security situation, and it varies by area, the commander said. However, he outlined three general sources of violence: Sunni extremists, Shiia extremists, and Iranian interference in the form of equipment and training.
Specifically, Lynch said, many of the rockets and explosively formed penetrators, a deadly type of improvised explosive device, used in attacks against U.S. forces originated in Iran. The bulk of these Iranian weapons uncovered so far have been found in Shiia hands, he said, but they have also been discovered in Sunni weapons caches.
Lynch said he does not yet know how Sunni militants acquire the weapons, whether on the black market or through direct contacts. He noted, though, that most of the training by Iranian forces goes to Shiia extremists, some of it taking place inside Iraq. "We have in our battlespace some number of members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps," Lynch acknowledged. "They're here. We watch for them. We will target them."
However, Lynch said, no Iranian forces have been captured or killed in his area of responsibility.
The effects of the training have been evident in recent weeks as the lethality of attacks on U.S. and Iraqi forces increases. The number of EFP attacks is up, and "the enemy is indeed now more aggressive than we've seen him to be," Lynch said.
Forty-six percent of attacks in his area of responsibility are being conducted by Shiia extremists, Lynch said, but with drivers of violence spread across the sectarian divide, he explained, U.S. forces have no choice but to treat each enemy in the same fashion. "What you want to do is take away the enemy's leaders, take away the enemy's munitions, and you want to take his ability to train," the general said. "So you attack all three of those things simultaneously."
To that end, Lynch said, his soldiers have conducted a series of month-long operations to target various centers of violence around his area. The latest, Operation Marne Husky, launched Aug. 15th and targets the Tigris River Valley southeast of Baghdad, in the area between Salman Pak and Suwayrah.
The first two operations, Marne Torch and Marne Avalanche, aimed to clear and hold areas south of Baghdad. But with success in those efforts, extremists fled to new areas, Lynch said.
"Did we defeat the enemies in those sanctuaries?" he asked. "No, that's too strong a term. But we surely disrupted his ability to do what he wants to do," he said.
Faced with a finite number of U.S. and Iraqi troops available for holding ground, Lynch said, he arranged for his combat aviation forces to launch Marne Husky as a "disrupt" operation, intended simply to keep the enemy unsettled and incapable of regrouping. "The phrase is 'tactical momentum,'" Lynch said. "We believe that we have the enemy on the run. We believe that we're in a pursuit phase of this operation."
While not capturing new ground, disrupt operations help prevent attacks on civilians and soldiers alike by keeping the enemy on the defensive and denying him the opportunity to reclaim territory, Lynch explained. "The enemy's got this amazing capability of filling the void," Lynch said. "If we go to an area and we conduct an operation and we leave, in about 48 hours he now controls that area again. So you just can't let him rest."
Strategically, Wasit province, where the bulk of Marne Husky is being conducted, is key to curtailing Iranian influence on the security situation, Lynch said. "Wasit province is of particular concern because of the Iranian-Iraqi border," he explained.
The province shares a 200 kilometer stretch of border with Iran, leaving the way open for weapons smuggling, Lynch said.
And with combat operations taking place in the western half of the province, equally important work is being done to shore up security in the eastern half, along the border, Lynch said.
Lynch's deputy commander, Army Brig. Gen. Ed Cardon, explained that in addition to training being given to Iraq's border guards by U.S. forces, a series of forts extend along the border with Iran.
At the one legitimate point of entry from Iran into Wasit, Cardon said, the border crossing is overseen by the Iraqi government. At that point, every inbound truck is unloaded and searched for weapons, he said.
As a further precaution and to account for smuggling routes, a series of six checkpoints are scattered on westbound routes in areas behind the border crossing, Cardon said. These will be manned by an incoming unit of 2,000 troops from the Republic of Georgia, he said.
"If we control these areas, it will be hard to move weapons in trucks through Wasit," Cardon said. However, he added, "We're under no illusions ... that the flow of weapons is going to stop from Iran."
In a development that could potentially bolster the program, Cardon said, Shiia tribes in the border area have approached his commanders, volunteering to assist in curtailing smuggling. U.S. forces will present the government of Iraq with the Shiia offer, he said.
Similar arrangements have greatly enhanced security elsewhere in the Task Force Marne area of operations, Lynch said, pointing to the success of the Sunni and Shiia "concerned citizens" groups in securing their villages. "We want the security of Iraq to be accomplished by the people of Iraq," he said.
"The solution is a sustained security presence by the Iraqi security forces," but the concerned citizens groups act as a crucial transition in areas with inadequate Iraqi security force protection, he said.
But in a region where tribes form the bonds of society at the local level, and family loyalties compete with any sense of national identity, critics including the Iraqi government have wondered whether encouraging a new breed of neighborhood militias is in Iraq's long-term interests.
"This is the challenge that you have: as you increase the authority of the tribes, how does that impact the authority of the provincial government?" Cardon stated.
The hope, he said, is that both the tribes and the Iraqi government build themselves up at the same time.
(Tim Kilbride works for Public Affairs in Task Force Marne.)