By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service
Jan. 17, 2008 - Operation Phantom Thunder, under way in Diyala and Ninevah provinces in Iraq, builds on previous operations as coalition and Iraqi forces target al Qaeda in Iraq and other extremist groups, the commander of the Multinational Corps Iraq said today. Phantom Phoenix builds on operations Phantom Strike and Phantom Thunder, launched in June and August 2007, Army Lt. Gen. Raymond T. Odierno from his headquarters in Baghdad during a video teleconference with Pentagon reporters.
The surge of five U.S. brigades into Iraq and the commitment of Iraqi forces to operations in and around Baghdad allowed these operations to be successful, the general said.
The operations did severe damage to al Qaeda in Iraq, and the surge also provided the manpower for coalition and Iraqi forces to pursue other extremists like the Shiite special groups that have ties to Iran, he said.
Al Qaeda remains a dangerous threat, the general said, but its capabilities have been diminished. "Al Qaeda has been pushed out of urban centers like Baghdad, Ramadi, Fallujah and Baqouba, and forced into isolated rural areas," he said. "Many of their top leaders have been eliminated, and finding qualified replacements is increasingly difficult for them. Al Qaeda's external funding and logistics are also suffering, and their foreign leadership has done nothing to endear themselves with the proud Iraqi people."
Further, the Iraqi population's growing rejection of extremism denies al Qaeda the passive support needed to maintain safe havens. Concerned local citizens groups work with Iraqi and coalition forces to maintain security in their neighborhoods and point out improvised explosive devices, caches and other criminal behavior.
"In the short term, al Qaeda will continue its murder and intimidation campaign targeting Iraqi security forces and concerned local citizens, but their long-term sights are still set on Baghdad," Odierno said.
This is where Operation Phantom Phoenix comes into the picture. At the beginning of January, Multinational Corps Iraq launched Phantom Phoenix to continue the relentless pursuit of extremists and to exploit progress achieved over the past seven months, Odierno said. "Phantom Phoenix is an open-ended offensive operation employing coalition and Iraqi conventional forces as well as our special operation forces," he said.
The operation is focused at the division and brigade level to further degrade al Qaeda in Iraq and other extremists in those areas where they are trying to re-establish support zones and command nodes, he said.
Two brigades are hunting down al Qaeda, and they have already made a significant impact, the general said. "We were able to do this without giving up any previously gained ground because of the improved capacity of Iraqi security forces and concerned local citizens," he said
Operation Phantom Phoenix has detained 1,023 suspects. Soldiers assigned to the operation have killed 121 enemy personnel and wounded 14. They have killed or captured 92 high-value enemy personnel and uncovered 351 caches of arms and explosives. The troops also have destroyed three car bomb factories, Odierno said.
Coalition troops also discovered numerous al Qaeda torture chambers, an underground medical clinic, several closed schools, and a large foreign-fighter camp with intricate tunnel complexes, he said.
U.S. forces are not acting alone in this endeavor. Odierno pointed to the deployment of 3rd Brigade, 1st Iraqi Army Division, as an example of the improving capabilities of Iraqi security forces.
"With less than a week's notice, (the brigade) ... was alerted to deploy from Anbar province to Diyala province to support combat operations in the Diyala River Valley," he said. "This was a good Iraqi decision and was executed solely by the Iraqis.
"Within 36 hours upon arrival, the brigade uncovered two sizeable caches, gathered significant intelligence and aggressively hunted down al Qaeda in tough terrain and demanding climatic conditions," he continued. "This is something that would not have been possible a year ago."
Phantom Phoenix has a significant non-lethal component, too. "Increased security will not in and of itself turn an area (around)," the general said. "It also requires the delivery of essential services, economic development and improved governance. It is what the Iraqi people want and what they deserve."
The coalition is establishing of a civil service corps, awarding micro-grants and developing vocational technical courses. "Although we are still in the early stages of Phantom Phoenix, we are already achieving good results and expect to continue for the next few months," Odierno said.