U.S. Teams Weaken Insurgency In Iraq
Saturday, September 6, 2008; Page A01
By the time he was captured last month, the man known among Iraqi insurgents as "the Tiger" had lost much of his bite. Abu Uthman, whose fierce attacks against U.S. troops and Iraqi civilians in Fallujah had earned him a top spot on Iraq's most-wanted list, had been reduced to shuttling between hideouts in a Baghdad slum, hiding by day for fear neighbors might recognize him.
In the end, a former associate-turned-informant showed local authorities the house where Uthman was sleeping. On Aug. 11, U.S. troops kicked in the door and handcuffed him. They quietly ended the career of a man Pentagon officials describe as the kidnapper of American journalist Jill Carroll and also as one of a dwindling number of veteran commanders of the Sunni insurgent group known as al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI).
Uthman, whose given name is Salim Abdallah Ashur al-Shujayri, was one of the bigger fish to be landed recently in a novel anti-insurgent operation that plays out nightly in Baghdad and throughout much of Iraq. U.S. intelligence and defense officials credit the operation and its unusual tactics -- involving small, hybrid teams of special forces and intelligence officers -- with the capture of hundreds of suspected terrorists and their supporters in recent months.
The "fusion cells" are being described as a major factor behind the declining violence in Iraq in recent months. Defense officials say they have been particularly effective against AQI, which has lost 10 senior commanders since June in Baghdad alone, including Uthman.
Aiding the U.S. effort, the officials say, is the increasing antipathy toward AQI among many ordinary Iraqis, who quickly report new terrorist safe houses as soon as they're established. Fresh tips are channeled to fast-reaction teams that move aggressively against reported terrorist targets -- often multiple times in a single night.
"Wherever they go, they cannot hide," said a senior U.S. defense official familiar with counterterrorism operations in Iraq. "They don't have safe houses anymore."
The rapid strikes are coordinated by the Joint Task Force, a military-led team that includes intelligence and forensic professionals, political analysts, mapping experts, computer specialists piloting unmanned aircraft, and Special Operations troops. After decades of agency rivalries that have undermined coordination on counterterrorism, the task force is enjoying new success in Iraq with its blending of diverse military and intelligence assets to speed up counterterrorism missions.
Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Adm. Michael Mullen said in a recent interview that the cells produce intelligence that nets 10 to 20 captures a night in Iraq.
"We're living in a world now where targets are fleeting," Mullen said. "I don't care if they're on the ground, in the air, on the sea or under the sea -- you don't get much of a shot, and you've got to be able to move quickly."
Fusion cell teams have helped collect and analyze intelligence not only against AQI and Sunni insurgents but also against Shiite militias and foreign fighters, say U.S. military officials.
Headquartered in an old concrete hangar on the Balad Air Base, which once housed Saddam Hussein's fighter aircraft, about 45 miles north of Baghdad, the Joint Task Force in Iraq runs fusion cells in the north, west and south and in Baghdad, U.S. officials said.
The headquarters bustles like the New York Stock Exchange, with long-haired computer experts working alongside wizened intelligence agents and crisply clad military officers, say officials who have worked there or visited.