Start of a series in which I track primarily security developments in the ongoing Iraq crisis. First edition will be posted and tweeted out early morning, second will cover late-night Iraq developments and be pushed out in mid-afternoon. Hope you enjoy.
The big news today came from Washington, as the world press tuned in to watch President Obama give his first statement on the crisis in Iraq. Obama essentially demurred, stating that the U.S. would continue to review its options, but made clear that U.S. troops would not be sent into combat and delivered another well-meaning, but ineffectual admonishment to Iraqi Prime Minister Maliki. Critically, the President did order the U.S.S. George H.W. Bush (CVN-77) sent to the Persian Gulf to prepare for possible contingencies. The Bush Carrier Strike Group (CSG-2) deployed to the 5th Fleet and 6th Fleet areas of responsibility (the Persian Gulf and Mediterranean Sea, respectively), and had until late March been lingering in the eastern Mediterranean as the crisis in Ukraine unfolded.
In Iraq itself, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the most-respected figure for Iraqi Shi’a, issued a statement during Friday prayers that exhorted Iraqi citizens to fight ISIS. While the proclamation was non-sectarian, Sistani’s message will resonate with particular vigor amidst Shi’a population and widen the political operating space for actual sectarian militias, like Asaib Ahl al-Haq, Moqtada al-Sadr’s Promised Day Brigades, and Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps. UMD Shi’a Islamist specialist Phillip Smyth published a succinct analytic take on current IRGC activities in Iraq and argued that the U.S. should avoid the perception of working with any of these Iran-backed sectarian outfits against ISIS.
Already, mass recruitment amongst Iraqi Shi’a has occurred: in Basra, the Provincial Council’s Security Committee yesterday announced the formation of a new “Basra Brigade” comprised of 13,000 volunteers. This force will ostensibly be used for security in Basra Province, as most of the Basra-based Iraqi Army 14th Mechanized Division has been redeployed elsewhere in the country, a trend begun in January 2014 when a brigade from 14MD trekked up to Anbar Province.
In Babil, 5,000 recruits showed up at an Iraqi Police training center. Likewise in Wasit Province, where “hundreds of volunteers” showed up for training after a battalion of Wasit-based emergency police were sent to the central city of Samarra. Tracking the formation and composition of new units will be crucial to understanding the force structure of the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) and its plans for rebuilding after this week’s catastrophic failure of leadership and morale. Volunteers also gathered in Najaf today, responding to Sistani’s call. Sistani’s message also seems to have resonated well with ISF–a source from a 1st Rapid Intervention Brigade unit stationed in the contested town of Jalula stated that morale had risen following the Grand Ayatollah’s proclamation.
Kinetically, the largest actions took place in Salah ad-Din, where IA Aviation claimed to have struck mosques in both Tikrit and Baiji, where ISIS had gathered ISF members who had surrendered for mass repentance ceremonies. In Tikrit, the airstrike on Saddam Mosque reportedly left three dead and six wounded. In south Baiji, an airstrike on the Fatah Mosque allegedly killed 30 and wounded 40 others. Neither report was clear on whether the casualties were sustained by surrendered ISF members or by ISIS fighters. Earlier in the day, an insurgent attack on an IA convoy left ten IA soldiers dead in Ishaqi, just west of Balad Airbase, which the ISF later spuriously claimed to have cleared with the help of the newly minted Popular Committees. PM Maliki visited Samarra, promising the governor of Salah ad-Din that
Fighting continued in northern Babil’s Jurf al-Sakhar riverine area, an historic ISIS stronghold, where ISF has been implementing a clearing operation in the village of Fadiliyah and Luz for a month now–today’s operations reportedly left 15 ISIS dead.
In Diyala, the situation in the northern towns of Sadiyah and Jalula remain extremely unclear, with ISF, ISIS, and Peshmerga all operating in the area and pushing conflicting reports. Down in Anbar, ISF retreats left a contingent trapped at Mazraha, an agricultural site just east of the city, which ISIS attacked via 4 axes today, indicating improved operational freedom of insurgent groups east of Fallujah that had been at least partially denied quite recently. Of weaponry note, this is the first reference I’ve seen to ISIS usage of its S-60 57mm anti-aircraft gun in Fallujah, which it featured in a parade about two months ago.
N.B. Casualty counts should be taken with a heavy grain of salt, as ISF tends to exaggerate by a factor of 2-4 and often leaves out its own casualties.