By Ahmed Ali, Richard Berger, and ISW Iraq Team
The Iraq Security Forces’ (ISF) offensive that began on May 9 in the areas around Fallujah city continued over the last four days with the reported goal of retaking control of Fallujah dam. The continued operations appear to be either preparatory to retake the city of Fallujah or to halt the flooding in surrounding areas caused by the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) shutting off the flow through the dam. An anonymous security source stated that 42,000 members of the security forces are participating in the operation around Fallujah city. The commander of Anbar Operations Command (AOC), General Rashid Flayeh, stated that security forces seized the areas of Falahat, Halabsa, and Albu Alwan to the west and Naimiyah, Amiriyat al-Fallujah, south of Fallujah, and Sichar to the north. Flayeh added that the “movement continues toward the Fallujah Dam, the city center, and the other areas.” Given previous similar claims by the ISF leadership, it is unlikely that the ISF have been able to entirely control these areas.
Since the beginning of the May 9 offensive, reports by Al-Iraq Al-Hurr indicated that hundreds of Fallujah families departed the city. The reports indicate that the families’ destinations were generally in the western parts of Anbar province, including the districts of Hit, Haditha, Ana, and Rawa. Corroborating these reports, member of Anbar’s provincial council Taha Abdul Ghani, stated on May 11 that 60,000 families departed the city on foot without their belongings toward Khaldiya and Amiriyat al-Fallujah.
Nearby Fallujah, a major military operation was launched in Jurf al-Sakhar in northern Babil on May 10 and is continuing. On May 14, the ISF also launched a “wide” operation in the northern province of Kirkuk. This development signifies the consistent geographic expansion of the confrontation between the ISF and anti-government armed groups. According to the Iraqi Army’s 12th Infantry Division commander, Major General Mohammed Khalaf al-Dulaimi, a clearing operation is underway in the area between the towns of Rashad and Riyadh, towns lying to the south and west of Kirkuk respectively. Dulaimi stated that the two areas of the Khanajir Valley and the Zghaytun River area would be focal points for the operation given that both areas are exploited by ISIS for training and logistics. Dulaimi added that the operation already resulted in the seizure of an explosives manufacturing factory that reportedly produced Vehicle-Borne Improvised Explosive Devices (VBIED) and Improvised Explosive Devices (IED) in addition to a mobile bridge used for shuttling across the Zghaytun River. It is notable that the areas for the ISF Kirkuk operation had previously witnessed clashes between ISIS and Ansar al-Sunna on May 5. The ISF is therefore likely taking advantage of the ISIS–Ansar al-Sunna clashes to achieve gains at the expense of a weakened ISIS. It will be important to watch whether the ISF operations will target Ansar al-Sunna as well as ISIS.
The campaign to retake Fallujah has led to claimed reprisal attacks by ISIS, with Baghdad witnessing the return of VBIED attacks on Tuesday, May 13. Ten VBIED attacks targeted predominantly Iraqi Shi‘a areas and, according to reports, the attacks resulted in at least 21 deaths and the injury of at least 73 people. An ISIS-leaning Baghdad-oriented account published a statement claiming the attacks and announced that today’s VBIED wave will be the beginning of the “Revenge Campaign for Fallujah.” The statement added that the campaign will be directed “against the Headquarters and gatherings of the apostate government, its parties, [and] its militias in revenge and vendetta of what they started of a hostile campaign against our people in Fallujah.” It is difficult to verify the veracity of the statement (included below) and it is unlikely that ISIS was able to quickly orchestrate a wave of ten VBIEDs on the spur of the moment. However, ISIS has sought to present itself as the defender of Iraqi Sunnis in the past, so this statement is intended to characterize the attacks in this light. The Baghdad operation is also intended to partially and rhetorically actualize ISIS’s previous stated intention to launch the “Grand Battle of Baghdad.” With the size and duration of the operation around Fallujah, we should expect ISIS to continue reprisal attacks outside of Anbar as the ISF attempts to re-assert its control in the province.
May 13 statement from ISIS-leaning Social media account declaring the “Revenge Campaign for Fallujah”
Ahmed Ali is a Senior Iraq Research Analyst and the Iraq Team Lead at ISW and Richard Berger is an Iraq Research Intern at ISW