Though the rapid advance of ISIS down through Salah ad-Din seems to have stalled, ISF withdrawals from disparate areas in Iraq have opened up secondary exploitation opportunities for Baghdadi’s men, especially in Anbar Province. In Salah ad-Din, the battle lines have been drawn on the highway between Tikrit and Samarra, with ISIS already beginning to booby-trap the city and operate freely on the southern highway to Samarra. Further north, Baiji remains contested, and with ISF reinforcing the Baiji refinery with airborne troops. This deployment indicates that Baiji has not fully fallen, and that the airspace remains permissive enough to allow for airborne insertion. IA Aviation also struck an ISIS repentance ceremony for surrendering ISF at the Fatih Mosque in south Baiji late Friday an airstrike of questionable operational wisdom, since the 70 casualties likely included many of ISF’s own soldiers, who have little choice to surrender in the face of mass execution, like the one conducted at Camp Speicher yesterday, where ISIS executed dozens of Iraqi Air Force students. Samarra Operations Command leader LTG Ali Furaji reportedly mounted a defense with a company of IA men at Speicher. Their fate remains unclear.
South of Samarra, isolated pockets of fighting continue. Samarra Operations Command announced the re-taking of Ishaqi, a small town just west of Balad AB, and reportedly also cleared Dhuloiya, across the river NE of Balad. Yet today the sub-district of Yathrib, just east of Ishaqi, reportedly fell to ISIS after ISF withdrew— if confirmed and consolidated, ISIS will be able to direct mortar and rocket artillery fire on Balad AB from this position. Clashes between ISF and ISIS in Taji indicate that ISIS has maintained its interior lines in the desert area between Taji and Thar Thar Lake, an historic area of ISIS control.
Further north, Mosul is quiet, with Niqash reporting on ISIS attempts to consolidate control against other insurgent groups–particularly JRTN–in its areas of control. Two key stories–the release of 15 Kurdish soldiers by ISIS in Tikrit, plus the release of 4 kidnapped Kurdish truck drivers by a JRTN front group SW of Kirkuk–indicate that the insurgent umbrella broadly wants to avoid provoking the Kurds at the moment. ISIS’s previous statements reaching out to the Kurds could indicate their degree of command and control over other insurgent groups like JRTN, JAI, IAI, etc. Further reports by Niqash, VICE, and McClatchy add evidence to the emerging narrative that the ISF did not reflexively retreat from Mosul, but were ordered to withdraw. The numbers given in these reports–500-800 ISIS fighters attacking Mosul last week–support my earlier assertion that total ISIS fighting strength was at 2,000-2,500 country-wide pre-Mosul. This number derives from studying ISIS’ operational tempo, watching its operations, tallying casualty ratios, and factoring in the tactical alliances with other Sunni and Salafist insurgent groups. The number could indeed be as high as 4,000, but I believe most newly minted estimates are high, since they overestimate the competency of the Iraqi Army. ISIS detached at least part of its contingent in Mosul to assault Tal Afar, 90km west, though the attack was repulsed by ISF and tribal fighters in the area after hevay fighting that left 10 dead and 40 wounded, primarily civilians. Diyala’s heavy fighting continues in Sadiyah, Muqdadiyah, and Udahim, all contested areas. Both ISIS and ISF have claimed control of these areas.
Critically, Anbar Province seems to be going downhill in a hurry. In the past two months, ISF had held Fallujah’s outskirts, made small tactical gains–re-taking a bridge both in Fallujah and Ramadi–and had repelled ISIS assaults on the key town of Amiriyat al-Fallujah, which links the Fallujah area of operations to ISIS’s support zone of Jurf al-Sakhar further down the Euphrates. A number of ISF units were pulled from Anbar following the advance of ISIS through Salah ad-Din, leading to significant gains by ISIS and its temporary associates in the province. 7ID HQ was hit in al-Baghdadi (while since that’s happened), the electricity generating station in Haditha was hit (attack repulsed), and intelligence reports warned of a general offensive against ISF along the Euphrates. ISF ceded the entirety of Fallujah’s outskirts, which it had previously used to make probes into Fallujah proper. ISIS now controls the Yabani Bridge and thus the international highway to Jordan, and is well-poised to beseige Habbaniyah now, having taken Albu Shejel village in western Saqlawiyah. ISF contingents were also pulled from the border, presumably to be redeployed.
This development worries me, as Anbar Province was the main focus of the ISIS military effort prior to the fall of Mosul. If ISF overconcentrate north of Baghdad, the western approaches will be wide open, including the PR prize of Baghdad International Airport, ISIS could hit in a Karachi Airport-style attack to further undermine Maliki’s legitimacy.