Summer Operations Northwest of Baghdad: Denying Sanctuary to Al-Qaeda in Iraq


The triangle of territory stretching from Karmah west of Baghdad to Tarmiyah in the north became a sanctuary for al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) beginning in January 2007, when the capital of the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) was displaced from Diyala province to Tarmiyah. U.S. forces operating in this area have worked to disrupt AQI activities in the triangle, clear AQI when possible, and develop relationships with legitimate Iraqi Security Forces and tribal elements to provide security to the population. These operations unfolded in three phases: disruption and preparatory operations prior to Operation Phantom Thunder (January to June), disruption and clearing operations during Operation Phantom Thunder (June to August), and clearing and holding operations as part of Operation Phantom Strike (August to December).

Prior to summer operations, al-Qaeda in Iraq used this territory to shift fighters and supplies between Anbar, Salah ad-Din, and Diyala provinces, especially as tribal movements began putting pressure on AQI in Anbar during the winter of 2007. It also used sanctuaries in Karmah and in Tarmiyah to build vehicle-born improvised explosive devices (VBIEDs). These car bombs would then be used in spectacular mass-casualty attacks against Shi’a civilians in order to fuel a sectarian war that would guarantee al-Qaeda a role as a security provider in Sunni neighborhoods of Baghdad. Finally, the sanctuary in Tarmiyah was used to establish the quasi-legal structures of the Islamic State of Iraq that constitute AQI’s political program. As a result, the triangle contained a multitude of enemy targets: commanders, associates, facilitators, bombmakers, foot soldiers, financiers, and religious “leaders.”

The physical and human terrain of the triangle was central to its role as a sanctuary area and transit route for al-Qaeda. It is mostly desert, with dry wadis and isolated roads linking both sides. Lake Thar Thar has little commercial activity, with a long coastline ideal for concealing transit and weapons caches. In linking Anbar and Salah ad-Din provinces, it provided a transit route that allowed al-Qaeda fighters to avoid transiting Baghdad itself and the large coalition presence located on the west side of the city. The triangle is sparsely populated, with a few small villages located to the north near Lake Thar Thar and most residents concentrated near Karmah and Tarmiyah. This distribution allowed al-Qaeda to conceal operations in rural areas and villages
where coalition forces patrolled infrequently, if ever.