Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Warning Intelligence Update: The ISF Shows Signs of Weakness in Anbar

By Richard Berger and Kevin Truitte

Reflections of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham’s (ISIS) momentum in Anbar increased over the last few days, while the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) launched operations in Ramadi and Fallujah. The ISF also withdrew from positions in northern Babil’s Jurf al-Sakhar area, a possible indicator that the battle in Anbar may tip in favor of ISIS and other armed groups. The Fallujah Dam continues to serve a battlefield shaping function. It appears that the ISF will soon move to clear Fallujah.

On April 9, 2014, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki called for an end to the control of Fallujah by gunmen. On April 10, the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) launched clearing operations in Ramadi and Fallujah, involving shelling in both cities. Subsequent clashes resulted in reports of significant ISIS casualties. The ISF also reportedly clashed with ISIS and tribal elements in Saqlawiyah, Albu Alwan, and Garma, the latter of which remains an ISIS stronghold. Photos on ISIS social media, including the graphic below, indicate heavy ISF casualties as well and numerous abandoned military vehicles and tanks. The fighting in Ramadi and Fallujah is still ongoing, and this update will describe events in Anbar for the intervening period.

In Fallujah, clashes on April 10, 2014 followed heavy preliminary shelling by Iraqi Army (IA) artillery elements that led to further displacement of citizens from the already near-empty city. According to an IA official, ISF operations killed 44 ISIS fighters in southeast Fallujah’s Sinai Industrial District and near eastern Fallujah’s Muadhifin Bridge, where the IA 1st Rapid Intervention Brigade destroyed three ISIS vehicles with mounted weapons. Later that same day, ISF clashed with combined ISIS and tribal elements in Saqlawiyah, Albu Alwan, and Garma. Later that night, Iraqi Army Aviation reportedly carried out a rotary-wing strike mission in Saadan, a small village just north of Amiriyat al-Fallujah, which left 11 ISIS members dead.

In Ramadi, ISF carried out a series of raids on April 10, 2014 after imposing a general curfew, cutting off communications in the city, and initiating shelling that caused dozens of families to leave. Moving into the city from its southwest quadrant, a joint ISF-Sahwa contingent seized the Haouz Bridge in an attack that left nine militants dead, some of which were foreign fighters, according to an anonymous source in Anbar Operations Command. IA elements later repelled an ISIS assault on the Anbar Provincial Council building in central Ramadi's Industrial District, killing seven militants in the process. Fighting northwest of Ramadi left another 23 militants dead. 

On April 11, ISIS partially reopened the Fallujah Dam after closing it entirely for a week. Reuters quoted an “anti-government tribal leader” in Fallujah who described the dam's closing as an effort by ISIS to reduce IA mobility. At noon, heavy IA shelling ensued, and the IA 1st Rapid Intervention Brigade continued to inflict losses on ISIS near the Muadhifin Bridge, destroying the fourth ISIS vehicle with a mounted gun system in two days. A special task force from the IA 8th Division with support from IA aviation continued to clash with ISIS in the Saqlawiyah area northwest of Fallujah, killing eight ISIS members and destroying three more ISIS vehicles. Later in the day, an ISIS raid in the village or Rofush in Zawbaa in southern Abu Ghraib left 11 IA soldiers dead and another eight wounded. This attack was notable due to the high IA casualties, demonstrating the ISF’s inability to respond effectively to attacks by armed groups. 

In Ramadi, clashes continued between ISF and ISIS on April 11, while a joint Iraqi Police (IP)-Sahwa force killed an ISIS leader and arrested six of his assistants in the adjacent Mualmeen neighborhood as they conducted clearing operations in the city’s southwest. Nearby, a joint ISF-Sahwa contingent killed seven ISIS members and arrested six more after clashes in the Iskan neighborhood. Iraqi Police also killed two suicide bombers attempting to detonate their SVESTS on the Maamoun Bridge, which links the Zubaydah and Hamdhiya areas northeast of Ramadi. The continued support of Sahwa and IP in Ramadi remains a critical factor in the overall ISF effort. Clashes continued through April 12, when the ISF reportedly killed 16 ISIS members and seized a cache of Grad rockets and SVESTS in the long-contested Maalab district. 

Meanwhile, on April 12, ISIS posted photos to Twitter of alleged repentances of ISF members, this time claiming that 80 IPs had defected in the Albu Dhiab and Albu Shaban area north of Ramadi. It would be a significant development for the joint IP-Sahwa element in Ramadi to succumb to ISIS. ISW is watching this indicator especially, because it has been a primary distinction between the battles for Ramadi and Fallujah that the tribes in Ramadi have consistently fought against ISIS to date.

Also on April 12, the ISF near Fallujah initiated a failed probing attempt from the northern side of the city and again engaged ISIS in the town of Garma, northeast of the city. The Baghdad Operations Command also announced its intention to establish berms to protect against floods in Abu Ghraib’s Zaydan area, which indicates that the ISF maintains control of that region.

On April 13, ISIS conducted counterattacks, most significantly destroying an IA main battle tank with an SPG-9 in Ramadi according to a military source. It is important to note that ISIS is therefore able to destroy ISF armor capability. Along with tactically employed SPG-9 recoilless rifles, ISIS also appears to possess an advanced weapon system resembling a Kornet E (AT-14 Spriggan) anti-tank guided missile, based upon an image posted to an ISIS Twitter page. ISIS is also sustaining itself through seizure of ISF arms and ammunition in the vicinity of Ramadi, evidenced in the second graphic below.

Additionally on April 13, ISIS reportedly attacked the Muadhifin Bridge along the international highway connecting Fallujah to Baghdad. Bridge attacks and flooding from the Fallujah Dam have likely limited the mobility of IA armored vehicles, neutralizing their utility in the fight for Fallujah. 

Separately on April 13, the 10th IA Division reported killing a militant named Abu al-Rahman al-Anbari, whom they characterized as a Lieutenant General in the former Iraqi Army now leading an ISIS element. ISW is monitoring for such indicators of Jaysh Rijal al-Tariqah al-Naqshabandia (JRTN) involvement in the battle against the IA in Anbar. In the Abu Ghraib-Jurf al-Sakhar belt, the IA 55th and 60th Brigades of the Baghdad Operations Command killed three ISIS members and destroyed their vehicles near the Tharthar Canal.

ISIS also reportedly held a parade on April 13 along the main road connecting Baiji to Haditha. ISW has assessed that this route, a historic support zone for AQI, is a principal north-south passage connecting ISIS elements in the Zaab region to those in western Anbar. This route may also connect ISIS elements in northern Syria through the Ninewa desert to ISIS in Anbar, an alternate route to the Al Qaim - Abu Kamal border crossing, which is contested on the Syrian side by rebel groups and Jabhat al-Nusra.

In Fallujah, Anbar Provincial Council deputy chairman Faleh al-Issawi initiated meetings with tribal elders on April 13 in an effort to end ISIS’s control of the dam and reopen all of the Fallujah Dam’s 10 gates to reduce flooding, which occurred later that day. In the evening, ISIS responded to the IA 1st Brigade’s success in eastern Fallujah by detonating a VBIED on the Muadhifin Bridge, a continuation of the group’s bridge-bombing campaign directed at this bridge in order to limit ISF freedom of movement and disrupt its logistical tail. Much of the ISF-on-ISIS clashes observed since April 10 in Fallujah have occurred in the vicinity of this particular bridge, indicating its significance to both sides.

On April 14, a source within the Anbar Operations Command reported that ISIS closed the Fallujah Dam again, causing excessive water levels in the mid-Euphrates. This is causing rapid population displacement outside of Fallujah. On the same day, On April 14, after a brief pause in fighting, the ISF resumed heavy shelling and rotary-wing bombardments in outer Fallujah neighborhoods, leaving nine civilians dead. The 1st Rapid Intervention Force reportedly clashed with ISIS in Saqlawiya and Albu Akash and near the Muadhafin Bridge. A source from the Anbar Operations Command stated that the ISF killed 20 ISIS elements and destroyed five ISIS vehicles while fighting north and west of the city. Northeast of Fallujah, the Garma area witnessed fighting in the villages of Albu Alwan and Sijar. 

South of Fallujah, on the Anbar-Babil border, ISIS assaulted an IA barracks in Rofush village near Zawbaa, the second significant attack in Rofush in several days. According to an AOC source, ISF countered “aggressively” by shelling ISIS positions at the partially constructed University of Fallujah campus south of the city. Further south of Abu Ghraib, North Babil witnessed the relocation of several ISF units away from Jurf al-Sakhar and the replacement of Babil Operations Command leader Major General Saleh al-Maliki with Major General Abdul-aziz Dhalimi. Dhalimi had been the commander of Iraqi Army units in Basra during the 2008 Charge of the Knights Operations. Such moves are likely part of an attempt to complicate ISIS targeting efforts and inject new energy into ISF operations. 

At the same time, the Federal Police in northern Babel relocated to Mussayib on April 14. ISIS may be working to re-establish its presence in Mussayib and Mahmudiyah, both historic strongholds for AQI. ISW is monitoring for withdrawals and defections from the ISF as principal indicators that the battle for Anbar is tipping in favor of ISIS and other violent groups. On April 15, Justice Minister Hassan al-Shammari announced the successful transfer of over 2,400 prisoners from Abu Ghraib Prison, a recent initiative undertaken after fighting edged eastward toward Abu Ghraib proper. 

In Ramadi, a brief pause in violence occurred between April 12 and April 14 after slight ISF advances. One attack on April 14 by gunmen in a vehicle struck an IA checkpoint and killed three soldiers on 60th Street in south Ramadi, indicating continued freedom of movement for gunmen along that route. On April 15, ISIS responded to ISF’s push from the southwest with two suicide bombers who detonated their SVESTs at a police station in northwest Ramadi’s Aziziyah district. IP foiled the attack, which only wounded two. 

In Fallujah, heavy shelling continued on April 15 as the Iraqi Air Force dropped leaflets warning citizens to leave the city “within three days” before intense airstrikes. With the new waves of population displacement caused by floods, very few civilians are left in Fallujah. Those remaining in the city were recently termed “killers and their relatives” by PM Maliki last week, indicating that the government considers those left in Fallujah to be legitimate targets. The leaflets may indicate an impending ISF assault on the city, an operation intimated by Prime Minister last week. 

ISW has previously assessed that ISF ground operations to clear Fallujah could have consequences including violence reactions by the Tribal Military Councils and further defections from the ISF. The fact that the Iraqi military is announcing this intent and dropping flyers to warn civilians may incur this effect regardless of the operational success of the ISF. An important consideration will be the enduring ability of the ISF to maneuver with armored vehicles in the vicinity of Fallujah. The ISF may be facing new counter mobility obstacles caused by ISIS bridge attacks and flooding. The withdrawal of IA elements from Jurf al-Sakhar is a worrisome sign that the IA cannot hold in the low-lying areas south of Fallujah. Increased clashes between the ISF and ISIS will continue as the April 30 elections approach. For ISIS, its previous employment of anti-election intimidation presages a push to posture itself for disruption of Iraq's critical elections moment. On the other hand, Maliki has chosen to center his electoral campaign on his ability to provide security for Iraq and targeting ISIS. Given that Maliki has staked his electoral campaign upon a mandate to provide security, ISF losses in Anbar will likely cause him to re-double his security strategy. Thus, impending elections may prompt the worsening of security situation in Anbar. 

Richard Berger and Kevin Truitte are Iraq Project Research Interns at Institute for the Study of War.