Militant group Islamic State of Iraq and Syria’s strategy in its expanding invasion of western Iraq are quite simple. ISIS induces terror with gruesome acts of savagery—and then takes advantage of the government’s sectarian infighting and infiltrates cracks in the army’s defenses.
ISIS captured Mosul on June 10 without having to do much intensive fighting. Divided, leaderless and afraid, the Iraqi army retreated after a few brief skirmishes, leaving itself exposed to pursuing militants.
The Iraqi army lost fewer than 100 men in the initial stages of Islamists’ offensive. It lost another 2,000 during its pell-mell retreat.
We doubt ISIS can repeat the route. But that doesn’t mean Baghdad can defeat the Islamists—even if the government does, in theory, possess every technological advantage.
ISIS has gained a lot of ground in western Iraq in recent weeks, but there was an unseen price. The Islamists’ successes provoked a powerful backlash. In Baghdad, thousands of men quickly volunteered to fight ISIS. Iran has deployed forces to protect Shia holy sites in Iraq. The United States has moved warships into the Persian Gulf and could launch air strikes.
With just 5,000 fighters and little heavy weaponry, ISIS is outnumbered, outgunned and surrounded. And the world is aware of the group’s strategy.
On June 15, the Iraqi army braced for an ISIS assault on eastern Baghdad. But the Islamists demurred. They struck Tal Afar instead. A town of 200,000 residents that lies between Mosul and Syria, Tal Afar hosts an Iraqi garrison under the command of Gen. Abu Waleed, famous for leading operations alongside U.S. troops during the occupation.
In contrast to Mosul, Tal Afar has held—even though the garrison in the town is smaller than Mosul’s was. Waleed’s men slowed ISIS’ advance on Monday. By Tuesday, the Islamists held many of the city’s Sunni neighborhoods. But the Iraqi troops are still there, still fighting. There hasn’t been another rout.
In the north, ISIS followed up its attack on Mosul by hitting the oil-rich city of Kirkuk. During the Iraqi army’s flight from Mosul, Baghdad’s troops in Kirkuk also got spooked and fled their posts. But Kurdish peshmerga militia quickly stepped in.
The pesh are holding the city against ISIS. Frustrated, the Islamists pressed into action six T-55 tanks they captured from the army.
And now Baghdad is hitting back. A battalion of army special forces—Iraq’s most professional soldiers—infiltrated Mosul and captured a few neighborhoods. The Iraqi commandos are digging in. Their positions are Baghdad’s “beachhead” for any eventual counter-offensive aimed at retaking Mosul.
On the political front, ISIS’ main agenda is to foment a widespread Sunni rebellion in Iraq. Two groups are competing for leadership of this nascent insurgency.
The first is the Naghshbandiyeh Army, in essence the remnant of the late Iraqi strongman Saddam Hussein’s Ba’ath party. Former vice president Izzat Ibrahim Al Douri and Raghad Saddam Hussein, daughter of the late dictator, are the group’s most prominent figures.
Al Douri’s son, a rebel commander, died in Mosul on June 19 during clashes with Shia volunteers and Iraqi special forces.
Tariq Al Hashimi, another former vice president, leads a smaller rebel sect. Al Hashimi’s band lacks the military power of the Naghshbandiyeh Army but does enjoy strong political support from Turkey and the Gulf States.
Against this increasingly organized opposition, the main Iraqi army has proved shockingly amateurish and ill-prepared. The biggest problem is leadership. For political reasons, Baghdad elevated many inadequate officers who in fact have no place on an actual battlefield.
On paper, Iraq has one of the best counter-insurgency air forces in the region. Baghdad’s air force does not yet possess advanced jet fighters—it has ordered F-16s from the U.S.—but the air force and army can deploy dozens of Mi-35M, EC-635, Mi-171E and Gazelle armed helicopters and King Air and Caravan light planes.
Shockingly however, some of the helicopters are flying into battle without all their systems installed. An Iraqi Ministry of Defense photo depicts EC-635s and Gazelles taking off for strikes on ISIS with no optical sights—normally standard equipment on attack helicopters. Without the sights, the copters cannot fire guided weapons and instead must rely on forward-firing guns and rockets.
The Iraqis’ aerial tactics are sloppy. Instead of orbiting a target area at a safe distance in order to gain full awareness before attacking, Iraqi pilots tend to fly straight in firing rockets and guns at close range. The absence of zooming optical gear might explain that reckless pattern.
These tactics not only compromise the aircraft’s effect on the battlefield, they also expose Iraqi pilots to ISIS ambushes. The Iraqi army has already lost at least one helicopter west of Baghdad.
Iraqi armored units are no better than the air force and army aviation. ISIS rides mostly in “technical” armed pickups, whereas the Iraqi army possesses modern M-1A1 main battle tanks and BTR-4 armored fighting vehicles plus older T-72 and T-55 tanks and BMP fighting vehicles. ISIS cannot match their firepower.
But almost no Iraqi armor has even appeared on the battlefields in Mosul, Tal Afar and Kirkuk—except in videos depicting ISIS fighters destroying abandoned vehicles. Perversely, the only tanks that we can confirm have taken part in the fighting are the six T-55s now belonging to ISIS.
ISIS is consolidating its positions as its political supporters vie for dominance. Now would be a good time to strike back at the militants. But only a few hundred army special forces are truly ready for sustained fighting. The air force is potent but inexperienced. The armor corps is missing in action.
Iran, the Kurds and Waleed’s men have helped hold the line outside of Mosul, and American air and naval power waits in the wings. But to truly defeat ISIS, Baghdad needs tens of thousands of dependable soldiers with competent leaders and good weaponry. Iraq needs to get organized—fast.