ISIS held another military parade in Mosul last night–looking forward to reviewing that–while they reportedly bulldozed the Sheikh Fathi shrine west of the city today. The ISF commander in the area, Abu Walid, announced a new offensive in Tal Afar, but it remains unclear whether or not he still exercises command over whatever ISF contingents remain in western Ninewa province. A security source reported that ISIS continues to booby-trap its areas of control in Mosul, a development I warned would make re-taking seized cities more difficult by the day. Government employees are still working without pay in Mosul, and Baghdad today announced that salaries would only be paid in areas of government control, a product of both security concerns and an effort to showcase the ineffective governance capabilities of ISIS and its temporary allies. In Babil, ISF reportedly arrested 3 “Baath Party members” [read: JRTN] in Diriyah, a town just south of Madain. JRTN does not maintain a strong presence in Babil, where a heavy mix of Shi’a militias proliferate, with ISIS operating solo in the northwestern areas of the province that abut Anbar Province. Continued reports of these kind could indicate an extension of JRTN operational presence. ISF’s announcement of 24 ISIS KIA by IA 31/8Bde in northern Babil operations continues a months-long trend of announcing successful advances in Jurf al-Sakhar, an ISIS stronghold. Additional details include that 5 of the 24KIA were Qatari or Syrian, and ISIS reportedly used civilian shields in the fighting. In reality, that area of operations remains a stalemate. In Baghdad, Masalah is reporting that gunmen executed a hit-and-run attack on the Kirkuk Provincial Council chairman. I’m waiting for independent confirmation on this, but it could be any number of actor. In Salah ad-Din, Sammara Operations Command Iraqi Army elements reportedly clashed with ISIS in the Jelam desert area northeast of the city, claiming 40 ISIS KIA and 8 technicals destroyed. At the same time, 50 families (~200 people) fled from Yathrib, just north of Balad AB, across the Tigris into a village in Dhuluiya, which the ISF recently cleared, to a certain degree. Beating back insurgent advances in Yathrib–today ISF claimed to have killed 12 ISIS fighters–remains critical for ISF in terms of providing force protection to Balad AB. Reports coming out of Baiji refinery are near-unbelievable (40 ISIS KIA, etc) but fighting does appear to continue in the center of the complex; outside, IA Aviation claims to have killed 19 insurgents in airstrikes today, while PM Maliki announced his promotion of all ISF members fighting at the refinery. A Shi’a militia group entitled “Popular Defense Brigades” (still unclear who) met up with IA units on the Baghdad-Samarra roadway. The continued emphasis by government figures on volunteers joining up through official ISF channels serves as a decent indicator that much of the extant recruitment is occurring outside that framework into full-blown Iranian proxies or organic Shi’a militias unanswerable to ISF. ISF spokesman GEN Atta continues to stretch credulity with today’s announcement of the retaking of Waleed and Turaibil border crossings. These reports are no longer solid indicators of ISF operational presence or intent; rather, they are interesting markers of PM Maliki’s strategic communications plan. Indeed, a corroborating Anbar Operations Command announcement of a military offensive in western Anbar does nothing to reinforce Atta’s claims. In Anbar, Outside of Fallujah, in the still-under-construction University of Fallujah grounds to the south and in Sejar to the northeast, ISF Golden Division counter-terrorist elements killed 9 ISIS snipers. Finally, ISF reinforced Nukhaib, replacing local Iraqi Police with Federal Police–the town remains extremely vulnerable, especially to a basic siege. ISIS in Ramadi used a suicide car bomb [SVBIED] to hit a funeral for IA colonel Majeed Mohammed, who was recently killed in Rawa while leading the 28th Brigade. Prominent tribal leaders in Anbar–many of whom are anti-Maliki–announced that they will defend Haditha and its hydroelectric dam with the Iraq Army against an impending ISIS assault, a welcome development for Baghdad, which desperately needs tribal support to hold territory in Anbar. Over in Diyala, fighting continues in Udhaim, with ISF claiming 21 ISIS KIA and 2 vehicles destroyed–ISF have reportedly stood up popular committees of local tribal fighters to hold gains in Udhaim. ISF and tribal fighters continue to skirmish with ISIS on the outskirts of Sadiyah, an ISIS stronghold northeast of Muqdadiyah. Families in northern Sadiyah are leaving for Khanaqin as Peshmerga and tribal fighters battle ISIS there. In Kirkuk, WaPo’s Abigail Hauslohner delivers a fine report with the most granular detail yet on the ISIS massacres carried out upon seizure of Bashir and its associated farming villages. Such behavior further alienates local communities, which were already fairly anti-ISIS, given the massive response to an ISF recruitment drive initiated by the 12th Infantry Division carried out in March. other news NYT’s Tom Erdbrink reports on the intra-Shi’a divisions, emphasizing return of spat between Sistani and Sadr. McClatchy’s Hannah Allam has an incredible scoop from captured DOD documents analyzed by RAND that put ISIS’s outside funding at 5-10%, showing a tiered organization that requires each level to kick back 20% of income to the next higher level, where Mosul would funnel money back out to areas of fighting; also, martyr payments were the group’s largest expense; further, ISIS soldiers made only $40/mo in the period surveyed, highlighting the ideological sway of the group. Concomitantly, WINEP’s Lori Plotkin Boghardt also swats down the “outside funding” narrative, highlighting Saudi counter-financing efforts and the pervasive push by militant groups to get their donors to push money through Kuwait, a more permissive environment–or using cash transfers to avoid authorities in Riyadh.
Interestingly, the 44 foreign nationals (from Turkey, Turkmenistan, and Nepal) recently kidnapped were released to Kirkuk police authorities late last night. The handover appears to have been negotiated by tribal elements, IPs, or Peshmerga, even though Pesh leaders claimed that the hostages had been “rescued.”
In Mosul, residents reported that ISIS bulldozed a statue of Abbasid-era Arab poet Abu Tammam in downtown Mosul. While we have yet to see confirmation of ISIS’s targeting of Iraqi Christian churches in the city, this act of “purification” would not be surprising. Still, the optics of focusing on such objectively trivial matters are poor; residents are far more concerned with provisions of basic services, which remains threadbare. Critically, ISIS reportedly broke the implicit ceasefire that existed between their forces in Mosul and Peshmerga contingents nearby by killing a Pesh captain. If KRG leaders were looking for an excuse to go on the offensive in areas west of Kirkuk, this represents the first chance. Further westward, 8 tribal fighters were killed in an ambush by militants near Tal Afar.
As a measure of the intelligence, support, and reconnaissance capabilities of the ISF, IA Aviation today struck 12 homes in Dhuluiya, north of Balad, with helicopter direct fire after mistaking an Iraqi Police patrol for insurgents. The strike killed a woman and wounded four more people, including a child, while destroying the house of Salah ad-Din Provincial Council member Munir Sheikh Ali Hussein. No enemy forces were reportedly in the area. Strikes like these–rarely reported, frequently papered over–undermine Baghdad’s anemic effort to portray it security operations as primarily concerned with the security of ordinary Iraqis. The advice and training given by U.S. Green Berets in the 14-20 joint operations centers will begin to alleviate some of these problems, especially with what the military calls ISTARS: intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition, and reconnaissance–or converting ISR into actionable intelligence. Also of note: an Iraqi policeman in Tikrit said that he and many others had resisted the ISIS call to repentance, fearing that ISIS would simply round them up at the designated mosque and execute them all.
The main kinetic activity occurred in Diyala today, where Kurdish Peshmerga continued to trade fire with ISIS militants holed up in central Jalula, NE of Muqdadiyah. Pesh fighters killed two ISIS snipers, Immediately north of Muqdadiyah, where a joint ISF/Sahwa force launched another clearing operation yesterday and killed 4 ISIS militants, insurgent mortar fire targeting Iraqi Police (IP) elements killed three civilians in the contested village of Arab Jubour, and a Federal Police (FP) patrol suffered an IED strike near Muqdadiyah. ISF deployed heavily around Baquba mosques today to prevent ISIS bombings at Friday prayers.
Interestingly, authorities in Taza are now negotiating with tribal leaders in the contested town of Bashir, S of Kirkuk, where Pesh fighters had earlier alleged that ISIS massacred residents upon seizing the town.The source consulted by Mada stated that 14 bodies–mostly women and children–will ideally be placed in ambulances and smuggled out of the town. This development will be an important one to watch and dig into whether the victims were massacred or killed by shelling. Addendum: Pesh forces claim to have killed 30 ISIS fighters so far in the week-long struggle over Bashir. Continued fighting between Pesh and ISIS in Bashir and Jalula belie conspiracy theories being batted around in Baghdad (actively encouraged by politicians) about ISIS-Kurdish cooperation.
Babil province, with its heavy Shi’a militia presence, continues to send contingents of “volunteers” northward–this time, 1,000 sent to Taji, just north of Baghdad. I suspect these deployments are wholly composed of Shi’a militia elements–there’s simply no way ISF could have already organized–let alone trained–the new recruits from last week.
And Baghdad today offered the weakest defense for its non-payment of Sahwa fighters in Anbar province, blaming the “security situation” in the province. Protip, Baghdad: if you don’t pay the guys preventing the province’s fall into complete anarchy, you’re going to have a bad time. Outstanding salaries–months of pay, now–were reportedly given to Sahwa leader Mohamed al-Hayes to distribute, though we’ll see how much of that money actually makes its way to local fighters.
In other news, the KRG struck back at AAH leader Qais al-Khazali’s recent comments and reminded Baghdad that ISF must protect Kurds living in the capital, an early indicator of the post-crisis crisis that will inevitably emerge between Iraqis and Kurds.
Niqash reported from Karbala on skyrocketing weapons prices; driven by volunteering surge, with many of the weapons coming from inside the Iraqi Army itself.
Friday prayers summary still to come.
In Madain, south of Baghdad, unknown gunmen kidnapped 40 people during the night, subsequently releasing 8 of them–such activity is likely indicative of resurgent Shi’a militias, which have been stationed south of Baghdad for some time to prevent ISIS infiltration and power projection into Shi’a cities there. In southern Baghdad’s Abu Dshir (a neighborhood of Dora), 4 executed bodies were found–bringing the total up to 8 bodies in the past three days. Babil and its fount of militias remains a key source of manpower for ISF, today sending 100 men to Tal Afar and 200 men to Samarra, contingents “specially trained for urban warfare [read: AAH etc.].” Cue AIN report: ISCI figure Ishmael Ashour and several of his sons were reportedly killed while fighting in Tal Afar. Confirmation of Shi’a militia activities in the province will be hard to come by, but is key to understanding the overall contours of the crisis.
ISF spokesman GEN Atta made an interesting announcement today vis a vis the future ISF structure, stating that all new volunteers would receive the same “martyr’s compensation” provided families of slain soldiers and essentially signaling the continued future future on new recruits. I expect this path forward–with no attempt to reach out to erstwhile or potential Sunni recruits–will be used to further factionalize the ISF and IA, given the overwhelming predominance of southern Iraqi Shi’a signing up in response to recent calls to arms by Maliki, Sistani, Sadr, and Hakim. Maliki’s dismissal over another 59 ISF officers today supports this hypothesis. And his announcement of salary levels is meaningless, since soldiers often simply don’t receive their pay.
Critically, areas of Samarra proper remain contested, as ISIS and co. launched a probing attack on an Iraqi Police [IP] station today in Mutassim, a southwest neighborhood of the city. Reportedly, ISF weathered the attack with the help of IA Aviation helo support, leaving 8 ISIS militants dead. Also in Samarra, a mortar attack hit the central Dubbat district, with shells falling near the Shawwaf shrine and government buildings–the Askari shrine is two blocks over.
Baiji refinery remains contested, though the tactical situation for remaining ISF units does not look promising, no matter the happy-go-lucky pronouncements of Baghdad. Tribal mediators were reportedly able to negotiate the release of 300 staff from the refinery area, indicating that ISIS plans to run the refinery itself, an interesting choice. To the northwest, ISIS reportedly seized a 20-truck convoy of food intended for Sinjar in another attempt to force displacement.
ISF and other pro-government forces continue to be relocated as if in a game of Risk, with 400 tribal volunteers slated to be sent to Ramadi to join the fight in that contested city. I continue to believe that Baghdad remains insufficiently concerned about the continued security deterioration in Anbar Province, where ISIS and co. has made significant gains since the inception of the Mosul crisis, including in the critical outskirts of Fallujah, which facilitate both freedom of movement and VBIED funneling into the western neighborhoods of Baghdad. In Saqlawiyah, just NW of Fallujah, ISF reports preparations for an offensive on ISIS positions in the area, which lies somewhere between “heavily contested” and “ISIS-controlled.” ISF continues to announce tactical victories in Ramadi, but haven’t advanced or executed any useful maneuvers in weeks. Hearkening back to yesterday, when ISF clashed with ISIS near the Rawoud Bridge, the mortaring of adjacent town Saba al-Bour indicates continued presence of militants in the area. Interesting, ISF are reporting that ISIS distributed videos of their beheading seven citizens from Garma and its associated village of Ibrahim Ben Ali for “failing to cooperation with the organization.” I’ll wait for confirmation on this, since we haven’t seen it before in Garma.
In Diyala, ISF continues to engage ISIS and co. in villages north of Muqdadiya, and the Peshmerga continue to clash with ISIS in Jalula, killing 4 militants in an artillery strike today in the town’s expansive southern villages that stretch down and link up with the ISIS stronghold of Sadiyah.
Of note: the mayor of a small town in Muqdadiyah area stated that ISF confiscated 2 ISIS vehicles w/ Saudi license plates and found “large amounts” of cash from from Syria and pre-2003 Iraq, indicators of cashflow directions.
In Kirkuk, the Kurdish Peshmerga lost 4 men on patrol after clashes with ISIS in the town of Bashir, with heavy fighting continuing. Several Kurdish figures have expressed worries the 15,000 families of Bashir are facing harsh treatment by ISIS and have called for liberation of the town by a joint force of Peshmerga, Iraqi police, tribal fighters, and Turkmen self-defense forces.
In international relations, the UAE recalled its ambassador to Iraq, citing Maliki’s sectarian policies, while U.S. President Obama announced the deployment of 100 Special Forces advisers to Iraq, who will first establish a joint operations center. Alissa Rubin and Rod Nordland report over at NYT that McGurka and Beecroft met with Speaker of Parliament and Mutahidun leader Osama al-Nujaifi and INC leader Ahmed Chalabi, who, I expect, is not actually in the running, but wants to play kingmaker. The article is jarring if you come in without any context–as is a similar report by Carol Lee and Jay Solomon in the WSJ–but bother rely entirely on quotes from anti-Maliki politicians and others who stand to gain if he’s ousted. Has anyone ever begun to consider what the consequences of such a course of action would be?
Additionally, the WSJ’s Julian Barnes ran a story dripping with hyperbole, writing that ISIS had taken over a chemical weapons complex! All the bad things are coming! In reality, the areas between Anbar Province and Salah ad-Din–the desert areas east of Lake Thar Thar and NW of Baghdad–have been under ISIS control for many years and were once believed to house ISIS leadership when the organization was still AQI and ISI. Maybe they did actually enter a complex they hadn’t before–I don’t know–but there’s nothing there of value anyway and no reason they couldn’t have done so whenever they liked before. In other news, Roger Cohen alerts us that Iraq is just like Afghanistan, which is just like Kosovo which was just like Bosnia. Granular, indeed. David Ignatius drops in to tell us how Iraq is like sports and we can just replace its elected Prime Minister with a wave of our hand. Fantastic.
At dawn, ISIS launched an attack on the Baiji refinery against the IA airborne battalion stationed there in poor tactical position, as ISIS controls much of the city itself. Thought ISF spokesman Atta denied the fall of the refinery–which shut down operations yesterday–sources from the refinery said that the IA battalion, even with IA Aviation helicopter support, failed to stem the assault. Mass surrender again factored in, with 70 IA soldiers reportedly taken prisoner, and one lieutenant quoted as having fled when the battle was clearly lost. Though the foreign refinery workers had already been evacuated, Iraqi workers who took refuge in underground bunkers could be coerced into operating the refinery for ISIS, should the group retain control of the city. Clashes appear to be ongoing in the refinery area, with ISF’s Counter-terrorism Services (CTS) reportedly still fighting.
Across the border, Iranian president Hassan Rouhani further expanded the extent of the Iranian “shrine defense” narrative, which UMD Shi’a Islamist researcher Phillip Smyth predicted and described in a podcast with Karl Morand earlier this week. On the flip side, American president Barack Obama today ruled out immediate airstrikes on Iraqi insurgents, indicating his preference for ISR support, military partnerships, and regional support. In other international aspects, ISIS reportedly kidnapped 40 Indian nationals working for a Turkish construction company near Mosul. Indian nationals have been kidnapped in Iraq before–rarely–and India now joins Turkey on the list of countries with large numbers of nationals in ISIS custody.
Tuz Khurmatu mayor Shalal Abdul–normally a fairly reputable source–announced that ISIS took control of three villages between Tuz and Amerli (85km south) after fighting with Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) that left 20 dead in total, though the Tuz area itself remains in Peshmerga control. In the same area, ISIS kidnapped three Turkish engineers and their Iraqi driver near the Hamrin Mountains, continuing their trend of kidnapping Turkish citizens begun with the seizure of the Turkish consulate in Mosul.
In Mosul, Al Mada quoted citizens who reported that ISIS withdrew its foreign fighters from the area, citing their inability to manage effective governance programs (though whomever is administrating doesn’t seem to be doing any better, with basic conditions of life inside the city deteriorating rapidly). This is the second report to identify such behavior, and while it is unlikely to be wholly true, it speaks to the group’s grasp of economy of force: remove a possible irritant to the population and deploy them where they are most effective–the battlefield. ISIS also reportedly set up a city council, which began reaching out to nearby tribes for support. The citizens also reported that all government institutions have closed, save for the municipal and health ministries, with private banks and government buildings now left unguarded. Niqash interviewed Ninewa Provincial Council head Bashar al-Kikhi in Qara Qosh, who had a number of interesting tidbits, including that no churches or Christians were killed (but that they had all fled), and that he considers Shabak and Yezidi citizens are at risk. He said that ISIS allocated one mosque for repentance ceremonies, and said ISIS exercises full control over what he believed were four other insurgent groups, including preventing JRTN from appointing a new governor. He puts the original attacking force of ISIS at 200, but said many locals had been previously recruited by ISIS, a credible theory given the longstanding ISIS chokehold over the city.
The battle for Tal Afar continues, with ISF reportedly consolidated at Tal Afar airport and receiving reinforcements from the Shammar tribe of Rabia.
In western Anbar, ISIS attacked and took three police stations–Hamdan, Abu Taliban, and Jazira–in Hit district. Government forces stationed in the outposts fled, and ISIS now controls all three, a significant win in their continued push against overextended ISF in western Anbar. Eastward, a rare bright spot in Anbar theater, where ISF reportedly repelled an ISIS assault on an IA headquarters near the Rawoud Bridge NW of Baghdad. Nine ISIS fighters were killed in the attack, including three foreign fighters. Anbar police announced plans to recruit and deploy three new emergency police battalions to western Anbar and the Iraq-Syria border, the latter of which enjoys increasingly little control by government forces, given recent incursions by ISIS, the Free Syrian Army, and Jabhat al-Nusra. A claim that Sahwa forces are ill-equipped and haven’t been paid in months could be problematic for the Anbar effort, if confirmed. Alter in the day, ISF lost more territory in Anbar, incl. in Albu Dhiab, N of Ramadi, where insurgents still control the highway through the city.
Elsewhere, ISIS mortared an unknown target 10km east of Tikrit, where tribal Sahwa are reportedly deployed, a rather precarious tactical situation for those contingents. ISF spokesman GEN Atta announced the death of another 42 ISIS fighters in the Lakes Region of northern Babil, a regular occurrence as a result of the clearing operations underway there for months. Yet at least ISF do not seem to be suffering serious operational setbacks in that area, a direct result of the number and quality of ISF deployed in northern Babil to prevent insurgent advances toward the Shi’a heartland, beginning with Hilla and Mussayib. Still, the slow pace of advances has led the government to deploy 1500 “volunteers” (possibly/probably Shi’a militia contingents) to Jurf al-Sakhar.
In Diyala. A small clash broke out in Abu Itamur, near Khalis, indicating ISIS presence in the area. One of the four militants killed was Chechnyan, a rarity for the Iraq side of ISIS operations. Further north along the highway, IA Aviation allegedly hit an ISIS meeting in the Udhaim area, leaving 15 militants dead. As an indicator of position, Peshmerga clashed with ISIS near the Jalula Bridge, leaving 2 ISIS dead and 6 Pesh soldiers wounded.
A smattering of interesting tidbits this PM: Niqash reports on the situation in Baghdad: services cut, food prices skyrocketing due to hoarding and cut-off roadways to Turkey (and Jordan, as the Yabani Bridge remains under insurgent control). Additionally, Niqash says that the ostensibly ISF checkpoints previously extant in Baghdad have doubled in number and been replaced by overt deployments of Shi’a militia fighters from Badr Organization, Sadr’s Promised Day Brigades, and Asai’b Ahl al-Haq. This does not augur well for Baghdad’s Sunni residents, should the crisis worsen. Plus, the Post’s team today reported that a Sunni imam and two of his assistants were found executed in the mixed neighborhood of Saydiyah in southern Baghdad, a rare high-profile militia activity.
PM Maliki dismissed four generals, ostensibly for their role in the fall of Mosul, and said he will release on the city’s fall, which will likely be dozens of pages of diverted blame. Former Ninewa Operations Command [NOC] chief LTG Mehdi Gharrawi along with his deputy, Abdul Rahman al-Handal, and the NOC chief of staff, Hassan Abdul Razzaq, all lost their positions. 3rd Infantry Division commander (based in Ninewa) commander BGEN Abdul-Karim was also canned. The problem with this narrative is that PM Maliki promoted LTG Gharrawi from commanding Mosul-based 3rd Federal Police Division back in March, so any blame for Gharrawi’s command decisions should necessarily lie with the Prime Minister’s office.
The Pesh/ISIS fighting in Bashir, just south of Kirkuk, continues–and this short clip shot by Rudaw from the frontlines shows well-equipped Peshmerga fighters (likely KDP-affiliated, given the fact that Rudaw is a KDP channel) engaging ostensibly ISIS on the town’s outskirts. Note the basic tactical proficiency of aiming, belt control, and cover–really quite basic necessities of warfare often absent in IA engagements. And, adding to my earlier note on the Bashir fighting, the insurgent thrust here appears to have been a coordinated three-axis push, with militants hitting town of Dibs, 55km NW of Kirkuk, which ISIS has been using VBIEDs on for the past three months. The third axis was in Mullah Abdullah, a town 25km W of Kirkuk, which ISIS reportedly now controls.
Lastly, a lone VBIED in the Maridi market of Sadr City killed eight and wounded 23; while not uncommon, the heightened tensions in the capital make militia reprisals more likely–the entire point of the longstanding ISIS bombing campaign.
Additionally, preliminary reports are trickling in of ISIS fighting with Turkmen militia forces in Amerli, a town on the highway south of Tuz Khurmatu that lies just NE of the Hamrin Mountains. This–combined–with the Udhaim fighting–indicates that ISIS is attempting to reopen or consolidate its Salah ad-Din-Diyala lines of communication.
[morning report below]
Today, ISIS assaulted three neighborhoods in Baquba–Mafrag, Mualmeen, and Khatoon–showcasing their freedom of movement around the city in a particularly brazen attack on a Mafraq Iraqi Police (IP) station. Though the thrust was repelled by Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) with one IP KIA and 9 ISIS fighters KIA, 35-44 prisoners died during the fighting, prompting conflicting reports immediately from both sides. Tigris Operations Command leader LTG Zaidi stated that the prisoners had been killed by ISIS mortar fire, but the NYT quoted a morgue official who reported that many of the prisoners had been executed at close range, suggesting the presence of Shi’a militia fighters or advisers. An alternate theory is that the prisoners were killed by ISF when they believed the police station was close to falling.
The NYT also reported on 4 executed men in Baghdad (specifically, Baladiyat, SE of Sadr City), which happened yesterday, as evidence of renewed Shi’a activity. Yet this activity has been occurring near-daily in Baghdad, ramping up after the inception of the Anbar Crisis in December 2013. One thing to note in Diyala: a member of the Kurdish parliament’s Pesh committee stated that Pesh controlled Jalula, but had not deployed to Sadiyah, an interesting report that contradicts earlier reporting and makes more credible anonymous reports that Sadiyah remains wholly in control of ISIS.
Tal Afar remains contested, with AFP quoting Ninewa Provincial Council deputy chairman Nuriddin Qalaban stating that ISIS held most of the city, with ISF and tribal fighters in control of some areas, including “part” of the airport. Qalaban said 50 civilians had been killed in the fighting, and estimated the total militant force at 500-700–these are likely primarily ISIS regulars, which would account for their absence in the military parade held late last week in Mosul, a city which, by the way, allegedly hasn’t had gas, water, or electricity for 72hrs.. Conversely, CDR Abu Walid continues to assert that everything is hunky-dory in Tal Afar, stating the militants only reside in outskirts of the city. That assessment appears unlikely–why else would Baghdad send 1,200 ISOF men to reinforce Walid if he were simply conducting mop-up operations?
In Kirkuk, ISIS reportedly attempted to seize the primarily Turkmen town of Bashir, with its Imam Reza shrine, but were repelled by a joint IP-Peshmerga-Sahwa force, a positive sign of collaboration. At the same time, unconfirmed reports from Kirkuk alleged that ISIS had begun to disarm locals in areas west and southwest of Kirkuk, including Hawijia, the Zab triangle, Rashad, and Abbasi.
In Salah ad-Din, ISF made gains west of Balad, reopening the road to Ishaqi and sustaining 29WIA soldiers in the process. In moving west, ISF contingents found the dead bodies of 25 IA soldiers, ostensibly executed by ISIS–which would be a wholly separate execution from that conducted at Speicher Airbase, near Tikrit, on Saturday.
All Iraq News published a preliminary count of volunteers across Iraq‘s south that amounts to over 200,000 warm bodies for the ISF. Watching the structuring of these new units will be critical, as their inexperience and the ad hoc nature of it all leaves the door wide open for militia influence. Baghdad and Sistani may have overdone it by issuing such a wide-ranging call to arms, or might have been more selective in their acceptance process. The IA doesn’t need sheer numbers, especially Shi’a partisans who will be ineffective in both a traditional military and Clausewitzian sense in the places where fighting is actually occurring: Ninewa, Anbar, Salah ad-Din, Kirkuk, and Diyala.
And, because I like to end on a depressing note, militants have continued to encroach on Habbaniyah AB, reportedly having taken several IA watchtowers and heavy fighting occurred at the southern entrance to Habbaniyah itself.
Topping off, conflicting reports of mortar or rocket fire on Baghdad International Airport (BIAP) have been twice denied by the Ministry of Defense (MOD), who allege the reports were misinformation from Saudi-funded al-Arabiya satellite TV, which often toes an anti-government line and uses the vocabulary of “tribal revolutionaries.” Elsewhere in Baghdad, 5 executed bodies showed up in eastern Baghdad’s Baladiyat neighborhood, a not-uncommon occurrence that often reflects Shi’a militia activity.
Ninewa province’s Tal Afar, west of Mosul, remains contested, according to locals–Western press reports of its fall are perhaps too generous to ISIS. ISIS-led forces may have taken some neighborhoods, but the fighting continues to be heavy between insurgents and Iraqi Security Forces backed by tribal fighters; on the other side, the announcement of a Tal Afar-based “Tribal Military Council” indicates the operational presence of the Baathist JRTN group, which participated in the Mosul strike, as well. It will be interesting to see the trajectory of continued cooperation between ISIS and JRTN, given pre-Mosul tensions and the attempt by ISIS to impose unilateral control over insurgent territorial gains in Mosul. What does not seem to be in contention is the movement of large numbers of Tal Afar residents west toward Sinjar: up to 200,000 more internally displaced persons. The condition and whereabouts of LTG Abu Walid, appointed by PM Maliki to lead Ninewa Operations Command and reportedly spearheading the defense of Tal Afar, remain unknown. Rudaw reported within a span of 20 minutes both that he had been captured and was slated to be publicly executed by ISIS, or that he is safe and remains in command. A local source in Mosul indicated that ISIS has imposed control over basic life necessities in ISIS-controlled areas of Mosul, an indication that the seized $425m will at least partially be directed toward subsidies; on the other hand, numerous reports are warning that ISIS has called for the destruction of Mosul’s churches. I’ll be interested to whether or how quickly they implement such a plan.
Elsewhere in Iraq, the battle lines remain much the same. IA Aviation struck ISIS contingents in Tikrit, both in the presidential palace complex and al-Hussein mosque in the city center. ISF men continue to pour into Samarra, this time an “elite police contingent” from Babil province, a worrying trend if it continues. To the west, insurgents deployed in two towns west of the border town of Qaim, reflecting a decreased ISF presence; they were met immediately by Iraqi Police working with local Sahwa fighters in fighting that left heavy casualties on both sides. Further down the Euphrates, Rawa’s mayor announced a joint ISF/Sahwa clearing operation of the sub-district–the continued cooperation of tribal fighters in Anbar will be a crucial indicator of both Sunni attitude toward Baghdad, the deterioration of which could leave massive security gaps, given a decreased ISF presence in Anbar. Again further down the river, my worries were realized as the gains made yesterday by ISIS the Habbaniyah area were translated into further power projection, as IA Aviation had to strike a military fuel depot seized by insurgents to prevent their usage of the fuel. The fuel depot was apparently close enough to Taqaddum Airbase that insurgents could have begun preliminary shelling, had IA Aviation not moved in self-defense first. On border issues, the Department of Border Enforcement (DBE) personnel returned to their HQ west of Ramadi after an alleged tactical retreat, while two brigades of DBE personnel arrived in Anbar from Basra and Wasit for deployment to the border (9/4Bde DBE from Basra, and 7/4Bde DBE from Wasit).
In the province of Diyala, fighting continues around Muqdadiyah, Sadiyah, and in Udhaim, a critical connecting point between the provinces of Diyala and Salah ad-Din, where ISF rescued the brother of the Udhaim Municipality Council’s chief, who was kidnapped by ISIS three days ago. The city remains contested, and ISF continues to reinforce Camp Ashraf. Near Khalis, an al-Ahad TV reporting duo were attacked, and the photographer killed; Ahad is the TV channel of Shi’a militia group Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq, indicating that some degree of the fighting in Diyala is being done by Shi’a militias–an unsurprising fact, given their deployment with Iranian IRGC forces late last week. Still, it’s important to have continued indicators of presence. East of Muqdadiyah and Sadiyah the fighting has been heavy, and it’s impossible to accurately map conflicting claims; one thing to note has been the heavy involvement of Peshmerga up in Sadiyah–according to their own casualty counts, nearly 80% of their casualties have occurred there, including in an errant IA Aviation strike that indicates the extreme tactical entanglement of ISF, ISIS, and Peshmerga forces in the area.
Overall, ISF has bounced back, as we expected, in Salah ad-Din and Diyala, preventing further ISIS penetrations into the northern belts. Yet this was always the easiest part. As ISIS digs in, retaking the fallen cities will take much, much longer. I continue to worry about the redeployment of capable forces from Anbar, Babil, and the southern provinces. Replacements will be less effective, receive rudimentary training, and will be susceptible to militia influence, recruitment, and participation in sectarian activities.
Post will be updated as developments occur throughout the day.
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.