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Fred W. Baker III American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON — The tables have turned for al Qaeda in northern Iraq, as a surge of operations there in the new year has put terrorists on the run looking for new places to hide, a commander in the region said Jan. 22.
Army Maj. Gen. Mark Hertling, commander of Multinational Division North, briefed Pentagon reporters from Iraq.
Operation Iron Harvest, part of the larger countrywide Operation Phantom Phoenix launched just before Christmas, has pounded parts of four northern provinces that have, for the most part, afforded the group safe haven, Hertling said. The operation’s main effort has been in Diyala, specifically the area called the “breadbasket,” near Muqdadiyah, in eastern Diyala province, although it includes Multinational Division North’s other provinces of Salahuddin, Ninevah, and Tamim.
Early intelligence reports say al Qaeda operatives are still looking for a place to hide, the general said. “And that’s what we’re attempting to do,” he added.
“A year ago, we were often reacting to al Qaeda and what they were going to do,” Hertling said. “Now, I think the tables have turned a little bit, and they are attempting to react to where we’re going to go next. And that’s a critical difference.”
Tired of al Qaeda’s torturous reign of terror in the region, local citizens are turning over weapons caches, hideouts, names and even drawing maps to where terrorists still hiding in the area could be found, Hertling said.
“They are trying to get away or find new safe havens. And every time they think they have them, we attack there,” Hertling said.
In 40 operations, many alongside the Iraqi security forces in the region, coalition forces have captured or killed 40 terrorists marked as “high-value individuals” by military officials. Forces killed another 130 enemy fighters, and nearly 374 have been detained.
Forces have cleared 386 roadside bombs, 28 car bombs and 38 house bombs. They have uncovered 127 weapons cache sites storing 2,100 rockets and mortars, 6,900 pounds of military-grade explosives and 30,000 pounds of homemade explosives, and they’ve destroyed a couple of bomb-making factories. Fifteen coalition force soldiers have died in the operations, Hertling said.
During the operations, coalition forces found a torture chamber and rescued two civilians still alive there. The two said 11 were being held there the day before. They had been held and tortured for nearly two weeks for working as contractors and running new electric power lines to the area, Hertling said.
The commander said that the insurgents would use torture to terrorize local citizens into allowing them free rein.
Terrorists would behead local citizens and carry the heads down the streets of town as part of what Hertling called their “very brutal and violent tactics.”
“And what you would see as a result of that is (that) people were afraid to either go to the police or stand up against these people,” the general said. “If you don't have weapons or you don't have security forces to counter that kind of action, it's kind of difficult to push back against these violent and barbarous criminals.”
Hertling said al Qaeda’s heavy activity in the area for the past several months has damaged not only the infrastructure, but also the people’s psyche. Now, though, stores are reopening and people are starting to go out into the towns.
“We are all seeing the hope on the faces of the Iraqis as they see a more secure future in some of these towns we have not been to recently,” Hertling said.
Operations north of Baghdad previously had used more of an “economy of force” approach, Hertling said. Security in the region was difficult to maintain because of a limited number of both coalition and Iraqi security forces operating there. After coalition forces would clear an area and move on, al Qaeda would simply come back and reoccupy it. But now, four divisions of Iraq forces operate there, and the country’s forces are growing in both numbers and capabilities, Hertling said. These additional forces will help hold the recent gains in security.