During Operation Steel Curtain (5-22 Nov), a brigade-sized Iraqi task force ( 1,200-1,500 men) and several battalions of U.S. troops ( 2,500 troops, mostly marines and supporting naval and army personnel) cleared al Qaeda and Sunni gunmen from the Al Qaim region, in the northwestern part of Al Anbar province. This Iraq's "Wild West," the desert region where the Euphrates River Valley crosses into Syria. The operation secured the cities of Husaybah, Karabilah, and Ubaydi, and also helped seal a substantial stretch of the Iraqi-Syrian border.
The operation demonstrated the increasing skill of the new Iraqi Army, which performed well. In particular, the new "Desert Protection Force" (DPF), proved of considerable value. Recruited from local Sunni tribes in Al Anbar, DPF personnel are very knowledgeable about the region, and have a great deal of credibility among the local peoples, who are often from the same tribes or clans.
During the operation, DPF personnel served as guides and escorts for the more conventional forces, in addition to conducting reconnaissance. They also provided valuable liaison with local residents, mostly Sunni Arabs suspicious of the new Iraqi government. DPF personnel helped local residents get out of harm's way, escorting them to emergency relief facilities, which helped reduce casualties among civilians. This helped keep civilian casualties low. It also prompted many civilians to supply often valuable information regarding insurgent agents "sleeping" among them and the locations of insurgent safe houses, ammunition caches, and workshops, which facilitated further operations.
U.S. intelligence personnel have generally praised the work of the DPF. Nevertheless, they have found working with them a complex task. As one intelligence officer put it, the strong tribal and clan loyalties of the DPF personnel result in situations where "They want to get everyone who's not their tribe." This requires careful handling by intel personnel, to insure that there's some evidence backing up arrests of suspected insurgents and their sympathizers.
In western Al Anbar there are two principal tribes, the Abu Mahal and the Salmani. Both tribes were originally strong supporters of the anti-government campaign. But about a year or so ago the Salmani cut a deal with Al-Qaeda-in-Iraq leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi to strengthen their hold on the region. As a result, many of the Abu Mahal were forced to flee the Al Qaim region. It was then that some tribal leaders decided that reconciliation with the new Iraq government was a good idea..
Most DPF personnel are from the Abu Mahal tribe, with a sprinkling of Salmani. They are trained primarily as a reconnaissance and patrol force. There are current 250-350 trained personnel actively engaged in operations, with about 1,250 more in various stages of training. The active personnel are organized into about 5-8 operational DPF platoons, roughly half of which are attached to individual battalions of the Iraq Army, with the balance operating independently to patrol the desert regions along the Euphrates and Syrian border.
As a result of Operation Steel Curtain, insurgent forces in the Al Qaim region appear to have retreated to the area of Akashat, a town about 150 kilometers to the southwest. Akashat lies in a very desolate, extremely isolated region, which is why it was at one time the site of one of Saddam Hussein's chemical warfare facilities. The region around it a stronghold of the Al Mahal, so the insurgents are not likely to find much of a refuge in the area.