Iraqi Army takes on Diyala

The Iraqi Army, with a record of 4-0 in 2008, has started its latest match against al-Qaeda in the restive Diyala province.  At dawn today, the IA imposed a curfew across the entire province as its troops deployed across the capital of Baqubah.  American forces joined them in raids against specific targets in the outlying areas of the province:

U.S. and Iraqi forces launched a new operation Tuesday aimed at clearing al-Qaida in Iraq from the volatile Diyala province, considered the last major insurgent safe haven near the capital.

New checkpoints went up across the province — one of the hardest areas to control since the U.S.-led war began in March 2003 — and authorities banned unofficial traffic as troops searched for insurgents around the provincial capital of Baqouba, according to witnesses. Many residents said they were afraid to leave their houses. …

There have been similar major operations in Diyala province in the past but they have all been so loudly heralded that insurgents had plenty of time to escape, regroup and stage a return later, BBC Baghdad correspondent Jim Muir says.

This latest operation was generally expected but its timing was kept secret, and army and police units were brought up from Baghdad unannounced.

Diyala has provided haven for insurgents of many stripes over the past few years, especially for those fleeing nearby Baghdad.  The province has a mix of Sunni and Shi’ite populations similar to Baghdad, which makes Diyala both convenient and dangerous.  The US attempted to pacify Diyala during the early part of the surge, with less success than Anbar and the capital.

Part of the problem may be the Iranians.  Diyala borders on Iran, and it may be one area in which the Revolutionary Guards continue to provide support and provocation.  Until now, the Iraqi Army has not been strong enough to hold ground in Diyala, but that has changed significantly in 2008.  Not only has the IA grown in strength and experience, it has routed its enemies in Basra, Amarah, Sadr City, and Mosul.  It has confidence, a quality missing until this year, and it has momentum.

American units will remain critical to success in Diyala.  The Iraqis need our logistics and leadership, but mostly they need our air power, which the Iraqis lack completely.  As the BBC reports, they also still rely on American combat troops to conduct ground operations, even under direction of the IA.  Until Iraq’s provinces all achieve stability and the terrorists have been chased out of the country, the Iraqis will continue to need this kind of support — and the alternative of chaos and collapse cannot be an option.