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Iraq Report: al Qaeda strikes at the seams in the north

Northern Salahadin and Diyala provinces. Click map to view.

Al Qaeda in Iraq conducted a major mass casualty attack in the town of Amirli in northern Salahadin province, and two other attacks near the Iranian border in Diyala. The suicide bomb in Amirli was massive, and the results devastating. A suicide truck bomber "laden with two tons of explosives detonated in an outdoor market," CNN reported. The high estimates put the number of killed at 150 and the wounded at well over 250. Most of those killed were women and children.

On Friday, al Qaeda attacked two villages in neighboring Diyala province, where U.S. and Iraqi forces are conducting Operation Arrowhead Ripper. A suicide bombing at a funeral tent in the Shiite Kurdish village of Garghoush near the Iranian border killed 22. A second suicide attack at a market in the village of Ahmad Maref near the Iranian border killed 26.

Al Qaeda in Iraq is probing at the seams of the joint Coalition and Iraqi operations. The town of Amirli is in northern Salahadin, and lies at the crossroads of the provinces of Diyala, Tamin, and the northern Kurdish province of Sulaymaniyah. As we have noted at the onset of Operation Phantom Thunder, al Qaeda in Iraq was very likely to push its operations from Diyala into Salahadin, Tamin, and Ninewa provinces as the pressure increased in Diyala. The attacks on the Shia and Kurdish villages are likely attempts to incite further sectarian violence as well as to secure a possible route to flee Iraq into Iran.

The attacks in northern Salahadin and along the Iranian border highlight the progress of the Baghdad Security Plan, al Qaeda's capabilities in Diyala, and current holes in the Iraqi security forces in the region. First, the major attacks were conducted for away from the center of gravity in Iraq, which is Baghdad, or even the center of gravity in Diyala, which is Baqubah. A major goal of the Baghdad Security Plan is to secure the capital and the outlying regions.

Yet despite the location of the attacks, the Associated Press identified the attacks as occurring in Baghdad (See "Suicide bombings kills 73 people in Baghdad.") Northern Salahadin and Diyala provinces quite distant from Baghdad.

Second, the massive truck bomb in Amirli and the mass casualty attacks along the Iranian border demonstrates al Qaeda's capabilities in Diyala. As we have noted for some time, Diyala has become a major base of operations for al Qaeda in Iraq, and a large portion of the suicide attacks in Baghdad were launched from the province. U.S. and Iraqi forces still have a tough fight ahead to clear the province, and al Qaeda will hit back with everything in its arsenal.

Finally, the Iraqi security forces in Diyala are currently not up to task to secure the province. Al Qaeda has the capacity to conduct multiple strikes nearly simultaneously - which also serves as a strong propaganda tool - as the Iraqi security forces are thin in the region. Currently U.S. and Iraq forces are working on clearing sections of Baquba and Buhritz and have been establishing forward outposts up and down the Diyala River Valley. About 2,000 troops from the Kurdish Regional Guards, essentially the National Guards forces of the Kurdish Regional Government made up of Peshmerga, were reported to have been deployed to Diyala to secure the villages along the borders. The ultimate solution to this problem will be the creation of local police forces to secure the rural cities and towns.

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