IRAQ DAILY TRACKER 20 JUN: Foreigners kidnapped by ISIS released; “volunteers” deployed to Taji; ISIS-Pesh ceasefire broken

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.

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IRAQ DAILY TRACKER 17 [updated]: ISIS assaults western Baquba, Maliki fires commanders

AFTERNOON UPDATE

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.pic 2

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.

pic 1

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.

 

IRAQI DAILY TRACKER 16 JUN: Tal Afar contested; BIAP safe

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.

IRAQ DAILY TRACKER 14/15 JUN: ISF redeployments facilitate ISIS tactical gains

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 NiqashVICE, 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.