IRAQ DAILY TRACKER 23 JUN: Kerry in Baghdad, ISIS hits prisoner convoy in Babil, ISF to hold at Haditha, ISIS escalates in Jalula

On the Diyala-Salah ad-Din border, ISF claims to exercise full control over Udhaim as they stage to move toward Anjanah, which lies south of Pesh-controlled Tuz Khurmatu on the Baghdad-Kirkuk highway. Just west of that, and barely south of Kirkuk, the ISIS massacre in Bashir was partially confirmed, with 15 bodies of Shi’a militants–at least some of whom had been lynched–were returned to the town.

Sectarian activities continue, with unknown militants killing a family of six in Mashahda, just north of Baghdad int he Tarmiyah area. Another 2 executed men were found on Canal Street in eastern Baghdad’s Sadr City. Four more executed bodies were found in Amil district, bringing the total near 20 for this week in Baghdad.

Big news: as expected, Kerry diverted from his “Middle East” trip to visit PM Maliki in Baghdad, reportedly pushing for a more inclusive government in a 100-minute meeting. The reporting from the meeting so far is thin:

There was little small talk when Kerry met Maliki, the two men seated in chairs in a room with other officials. At one point Kerry looked at an Iraqi official and said, “How are you?”

 

In Anbar, the Waleed border crossing fell to ISIS, with Sunni tribes taking the southern Turabil crossing to Jordan following an ISF pullout. As I’ve been indicating since the beginning, Anbar Province barely had the necessary force structure to maintain fighting positions at the onset of this crisis; further redeployment opened the province wholly to insurgents. ISF lost more ground in Anbar, having now pulled back to the town center of Nukhaib, southeast of Ramadi, after losing control of the outlying areas. Nukhaib is a small town sitting at the junction of Highway 21, which runs south from Karbala into Saudi Arabia, and Highway 22, which splits off from the Anbar segment of the international highway and runs south. The town likely cannot be held for long, unless reinforcement arrive from the southern provinces. Those forces are sitting on the Anbar-Karbala border; doubt they’re going anyway.

Further, ISF detonated the Fahim Bridge in Haditha District to try to arrest the advance of militants from western Anbar, forcing the ISF to reconstitute in Haditha itself, where the ISF will try to hold the line, sending 960 tribal Sahwa elements to the district. New reports from the western border state that ISIS operates in the area with the support of the Islamic Army of Iraq (IAI), Omar Brigades, and Hussein Brigades. The source stated that the armed elements had released surrendered ISF members and allowed the border authorities to conduct business regularly, while the groups inspected military materiel seized over the weekend. These groups were reported, but rarely confirmed, to be present in Fallujah with ISIS. OCINC spokesman GEN Atta confirmed that the pullouts in Anbar province were the result of military orders, not general retreats, and tried to stem rumors that Abu Walid, ostensibly leading the charge in Tal Afar, had fled to Sinjar–but Kurdish TV showed him with Peshmerga. Tal Afar, including the airport, is now fully under control of insurgents. Fighting around Fallujah seems to have devolved, from an ISF perspective, into simple airstrikes on ISIS and co. positions.

In Babil, ISIS reportedly hit a convoy of prisoners being transported away from Nile village (25km NE of Hillah) by elements of either the Iraqi Police or the IA Scorpion Brigade. 5 IA and 5 ISIS were reportedly killed in the fighting, along with 71 of the prisoners. Such a large number of deaths indicates that many were likely executed. Given the recent ISIS attack on the Mafraq IP station in Baquba, this is the second large ISIS strike on concentrations of prisoners (normally Sunnis), which may indicate their intent to instigate massacres. Secondarily, the eastward reach of the strike may indicate a dearth of pro-government presence in the area as Shi’a militias move out from Babil province.

ISIS continues to harass IA checkpoints in Yusufiyah, but the effort in Babil and the Babil-Anbar corridor has yet to pick up on either side. 23/17Bde claims to have killed 7 ISIS militants in an ambush in Yusufiyah’s associated Mnari village.

In Diyala, ISIS detonated an SVBIED (suicide car bomb) on the bridge in northwest Jalula that crosses the Diyala river in the Upper Diyala River Valley, injuring 4 Pesh soldiers in the blast. The attack was likely intended to cut off Pesh forces in Jalula from Kurdistan proper, even though Kurdish fighters in Jalula can now be resupplied from Khanaqin, which is Pesh-occupied. This is a longstanding tactic of ISIS, developed to exacerbate ISF logistics shortcomings and canalize movements to increase IED lethality and shape ISF posture.

A new fighting unit was announced in Baquba by retired BGEN Khudair al-Mekemadyi comprised of 4,500 tribal men and volunteers from Baquba proper. He added that the brigade, composed of eight battalions, was trained “over the past few days” and awaits orders from Tigris Operations Command. Given the influence of several Shi’a militias in the area, it is likely this brigade, just like those formed in Babil province, are either heavily infiltrated by or under the control of Shi’a militia leaders. ISIS reportedly called for all other armed groups to leave its stronghold of Sadiyah, NE of Muqdadiyah, within 48hrs. ISIS-JRTN fighting could follow, if the demand is confirmed.

Having pulled out nearly completely from Tal Afar, IA Aviation has begun airstrikes on associated militant elements within the city. Further south, fighting continues in Samarra, with the Volcano Battalion, recently sent from Wasit, claiming it killed 20 ISIS fighters today after killing 30 on Friday; these number are inflated, but they give a good idea of the intensity of the fighting.

On the military side, numerous sources reported that Baghdad is looking for additional Mi-35M Hind E assault helicopters, having had 7 downed since the inception of the crisis in December 2013–some by anti-aircraft gunnery, some by MANPADS. I expect the Czech government will agree rather rapidly to a deal for 7 new Mi-35s, a deal reportedly worth $12m. The report also cites “damage” (type/significance unclear) to 60 birds–no matter how bad the damage, those helos are unlikely to fly combat-effective missions any time soon, owing to the poor maintenance and repair capabilities of the Iraqi Army. IAA also lost one of the U.S.-delivered Cessna–provided as a platform for AGM-144K/R Hellfires–leaving them with only two, and recently ran out of Hellfires themselves.

 

Late yesterday, the NYT finally focused on ISF’s wider problems:

Recent assessments by Western officials and military experts indicate that about a quarter of Iraq’s military forces are “combat ineffective,” its air force is minuscule, morale among troops is low and its leadership suffers from widespread corruption.

Five IA divisions were judged combat ineffective, including the Ninewa-based 2nd and 3rd Infantry Divisions, which dissolved under orders to withdraw from the ISIS advance. The 3rd Federal Police Division, which had been in Mosul, remains unaccounted for. Soldiers from those units have been pushed into Taji to be reconstituted. Atta added that “hundreds” of ISF members have been killed so far, a figure that wouldn’t be out place with what I’ve witnessed as casualty ratios in excess of 5:1.

NYT also delivers an opaque assessment of ISIS, putting its fighters at 5,000-6,000 in Iraq, with 4,000 allied Sunni militants. I’d switch those numbers around, based on the congregations of ISIS I’ve followed and their operational freedom and inability to implement governance regimes–even in Fallujah, which the group has held since December 2013. Interestingly, the NYT puts the number of captured artillery pieces from the Mosul offensive at 52. I expect most of these will be moved to Syria, where the battle lines are far more static–in Iraq, ISIS relies on its maneuver capabilities to outflank, intimidate, and break apart the Iraqi Army. The capture of the Mosul IA depot is far more significant in that respect, with its basic military materiel, ammunition, and ISF vehicles for ambushes and camouflage.

WaPo echoes the NYT’s assessment, citign one-week training for new ISF volunteers and a wider “psychological collapse” in ISF morale. Worse yet, most volunteers are signing up “under the banner” of militias. 10 more ScanEagles–which the IQAF have been operating for some time–will arrive in the next week or so, along with a new Hellfire shipment.

Ali Hatem Suleiman, speaking in Irbil with IAI leader Ahmed Dabash, continues to see how impossible he can make any reconciliation with Baghdad, today claiming that “Baghdad will fall.” Dabash himself was interviewed by the Telegraph.

WRITING ON IRAQ

The Atlantic’s Steve Clemons runs a piece sourced of thin gruel alleging direct Saudi support for ISIS, citing one Qatari official and David Ignatius. Cale Salih writes a fine report for NYT on over-enthusiasm about the strategic situation, as seen from Irbil. Joel Wings offers a cogent rationale for Sadr’s hesitancy to overtly reconstitute the Mahdi Army. USF’s Mohsen Milani pens a piece for Foreign Affairs that explores the contours of Iranian strategic thinking about the current crisis.

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