ISF in Greater Anbar March 12

The Iraqi military, supported by a wide variety of local armed groups as well as coalition air support, has been conducting several rather important offensive operations in and around Anbar province over the past few weeks. Probably the most visible one has been the push to surround Fallujah and cut off ISIS supply routes in preparation for final liberating the city. ISF has major bases in Camp Fallujah and the Taqaddum base to the east and west of Fallujah respectively. Although the campaign has seen ISF participation, Fallujah has long been the main operational area for Shia militias and a smaller number, though growing, of local Sunni and tribal militias under the PMF umbrella. The beginning of this push saw reports of tribal uprising against ISIS in the city (the most credible reports I’ve seen have this occurring after disputes in a bread line). However it appears initial reports of the scale were a tad overblown and ISIS quickly crushed the uprising with their usual brutality.

This ISF campaign on this front, unfortunately, appears to have bogged down. There were reports of ISF pushing into the Naimiyah southern suburb, though these appear to be more raids then actual attempts to gain ground. Fighting has also been reported in the long-disputed Qarma district to the north-east, but the ISF has launched “clearing” operations in Qarma for years now, all of which have officially succeeded, but with no real permanent progress made. The Qarma area and the poorly secured areas northwest of the city north of the Euphrates through the Saqlawiyah district are the main ISIS supply lines and until those are cut it’s unlikely the city can be recaptured. While the ISF, with heavy militia support, has attempted to secure both, so far neither push has succeeded. ISIS also controls several of the surrounding towns to the immediate west of the river and has a great deal of operational freedom in the west and southwest near Amiriyat Fallujah, which is held by the ISF but subject to frequent attacks.

There are two other ISF-led campaigns in the area in the Jazeera Samarra area east and north of Lake Tharthar and an operation to liberate Hit and secure land routes into the Haditha pocket. Haditha itself is held largely by anti-ISIS tribal fighters and has constantly complained of insufficient government support. This operation would go a long way to address those concerns. The Ain al Assad airbase (where US trainers are based) is the main ISF controlled point in the area and is subject to occasional mortar attacks; offensives out of the base to the south and east have been reported, but I haven’t seen much follow-up reporting. The Haditha area is hugely strategic, controlling supply lines between Syria and Iraq as well as key dam infrastructure. The area between Ain al Assad and Ramadi is ISIS controlled and long been used to conduct attacks on urban centers and outposts. Opening up the roads in the area would deal a blow to ISIS both in Anbar (making resupply of Fallujah even harder for example) as well as providing a security belt for Euphrates cities like Ramadi. It’s too early to say what progress this campaign will have, but if successful it would have a major impact on the ISIS fight in Iraq.

The other major ISF advance is in the Jazeera Samarra area, the flat open terrain west of Tikrit and Samarra. Though the exact boundaries north and south are a bit nebulous, the Strategic Line (oil pipeline) west of Samarra and Lake Tharthar are the major borders of the region. This area is relatively featureless and, although it appears mostly empty on a map, it’s actually a large agricultural zone with a fairly sizable population. This area (like Haditha) is extremely strategic. ISF control would cut links between Syria and Mosul, which is already extremely isolated following Kurdish advances in northern Iraq and Syria over the past year.

ISF officials have claimed that the Jazeera Samarra operation— led by the elite Counter-Terrorism units — was a huge success. Pushing ISIS out of large areas, capturing a huge amount of supplies, killing numerous militants, securing the population, and providing a security zone for cities along the Tigris. There are reasons for pessimism though. As discussed, the area is very rural which will make it difficult to secure long-term gains and some level of ISIS penetration in and through the area is likely to remain an issue for the Iraqi government. Even short-term security may be difficult — much of the ISF training has been focused on urban combat and security; military commanders admitted that the force intended to secure and police the area was still undergoing training for rural combat environments after announcing that ISIS was defeated in the region. That will likely mean that ISF units, possibly the C-T units, will be bogged down securing a large area without the training to do so. That could significantly slow progress for other offensives, as all major Iraqi drives (Tikrit, Baiji, and Ramadi) have been led by the C-T units.

All of that of course ignores the Iraqi military’s penchant for announcing areas as “cleared” when that’s not actually the case. Often this is a premature declaration claiming that it will be in 24 hours or at some other set future date (which is a fairly useless statement) and was seen a lot most recently in the Ramadi operations. This is not too bad when you’re riding a wave of success like the Ramadi attack and it’s more a question of when rather then if an area will be taken (though it is annoying for map creation purposes let me tell you). Other times these declarations seem to be using a more limited definition of the word cleared, more in line with how the US military used to “clear” areas in Vietnam. Securing major bases/checkpoints and sweeping areas but not leaving a permanent security presence amongst the population. ISIS fighters have in the past simply not engaged, instead melting into the population and either retreating to another area or launching conventional or terror attacks in rear-zones. Preventing re-infiltration is going to be as difficult for the ISF as it was for Americans in Vietnam. It’s not a perfect analogy but one I’m afraid will be apt in this case. I think the operation was certainly a success in at least putting ISIS on their backfoot in the area and securing weaponry, supplies, etc. It definitely did disrupt them. I only hope this can be translated into permanent gains without any (or too much) backsliding.

EDIT March 15: Statements by the PMF committee (Arabic)further the above point. Although it should be kept in mind that these groups have a vested interest in making the ISF and Iraqi government look bad, so their statements should be taken with a grain of salt.

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