By: Christopher Kozak and Jessica D. Lewis
Airstrikes in Iraq and Syria have the potential to disrupt ISIS by obstructing the physical links across its disparate operating areas. Degrading the military ability of ISIS to launch coordinated attacks across a wide area and limiting the ability of ISIS to launch new ground offensives is vital. However, these strikes do not operate inside a closed system. Observing how ISIS operates on its multiple fronts is key to understanding how airstrikes in one area affect the others. One of the primary areas where ISIS has been on the offensive in September 2014 is the Northern Baghdad Belts zone in Iraq, including strikes upon the capital itself. U.S. airstrikes have recently begun to target ISIS assets in this zone and it is important to anticipate how ISIS will react within Iraq’s capital region.
Attacks upon the capital
Explosive attacks have continued in Baghdad throughout the summer. On September 4, ISIS detonated an SVBIED in Kadhmiyah, apparently aimed at civilian targets in Abdul Mohsen al-Kadhimi Square. Kadhmiyah is a predominantly Shi’a neighborhood housing one of Iraq’s most important shrines, and ISIS has attacked it often in order to incite sectarian mobilization. The ISIS attack on the Adala Prison in the Kadhmiyah military intelligence headquarters complex on September 18 marked an escalation in ISIS’s operations in the Baghdad zone. This attack was the first ground force attack upon a fixed military facility in the city since the fall of Mosul in June 2014. ISIS had attacked numerous prisons across Iraq during the 2012-2013 “Breaking the Walls” campaign, ending with the successful prison break at Abu Ghraib in July 2013. The complex combined arms attack against the prison in Kadhmiyah included mortars, an SVBIED, two SVESTS, and small-arms fire. ISIS detonated an additional VBIED at the office of the Badr organization in Iskan, western Baghdad. ISIS denied that the operation was an unsuccessful prison break attempt, but at minimum the attacks indicate that ISIS is exercising its ability to breach capital defenses at a concentrated point near a shrine in order to strike military and Shi’a militia targets.
Indirect fire was also reported from locations north of Baghdad on September 15 and September 21. The use of indirect fire in the capital may indicate attempts by ISIS or other groups to attack Baghdad from a distance. Isolated indirect fire events may also constitute operational testing in support of future attacks. However, ISF defenses have increased in response to recent attacks. The ISF closed two bridges in central Baghdad after a VBIED detonated in the Karrada neighborhood on September 19. While airstrikes continue to escalate against ISIS positions in Iraq and Syria, ISIS may react by projecting greater force within the Baghdad zone.
Attacks to control the lower Tigris
ISIS militants have also made repeated efforts to break the line of ISF defenses along the Tigris River which protect access to the northern Baghdad belts. On September 8 and 9, ISIS launched a two major attacks on the village of Dhuluiya, southeast of Samarra, involving mortars, three SVBIEDs, and two IEDs emplaced on boats. ISIS successful used another IED-equipped boat on September 13 to destroy the last remaining bridge to Dhuluiya, severing lines of resupply linking the ISF garrison to Baghdad and Camp Taji military base. Extensive indirect fire on the area was also reported between September 11 and September 16, including a possible attack by chlorine gas shells on September 15. These actions marked a heavy escalation of force and were likely an attempt to prepare the ground for a future offensive by softening ISF fortifications. If confirmed, the deployment of chemical assets to the area conforms to a historical pattern of chlorine gas use by Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) and may also signal the strategic importance which ISIS places on the northern Baghdad front. On September 18, ISIS launched another major attack on Dhuluiya which was repelled by local tribal fighters. As ISIS comes under increasing pressure on other fronts, particularly from airstrikes in Iraq and Syria, further pressure on the northern Baghdad system can be expected.
Increasing levels of mobilization have been occurring behind this exterior line of ISF positions as well, in the vicinity of Taji, Balad, and Ishaqi. ISIS control of these areas would break the main lines of communication between Baghdad and forward-deployed ISF units in Tikrit, Samarra, and Dhuluiya. A chain of small-scale insurgent attacks, including roadside IEDs in Taji in September 14 and 20 as well as an attempt to kill a local Sahwa [Awakening] commander in Tarmiyah on September 22, indicate that ISIS maintained at least a low-level presence to harass ISF operations in the area. Following the Kadhmiyah prison break attempt, however, ISIS has visibly increased its force posture north of Baghdad. On September 21, ISIS launched a ground assault on the village of Dujail from four axes and has continued to apply pressure through daily attacks. ISIS forces also seized the village of Kaban in the Ishaqi sub-district on September 21, placing the neighboring village of Abu al-Sifa under siege. Dujail and Ishaqi both sit along the highway connecting the ISF units and Shi’a militias in Baghdad and Camp Taji with Samarra and Tikrit. Direct clashes also took place on September 23 in Tarmiyah, Mashahda, and Filahat, northeast of Camp Taji near the road to Baquba and al-Udhaim. This series of attacks is a decisive step change in ISIS behavior in the northern Baghdad belt and may be indicative of an ISIS response to increased pressure in other areas. The manpower required to execute simultaneous ground offensives also suggests that ISIS has redeployed units from neighboring control zones or activated latent capabilities in the northern Baghdad belt. One potential source of these reinforcements is the neighboring Thar Thar region, which has been previously assessed as a zone of strong ISIS control. Another ISIS line of communication may run along the far bank of the Tigris River from the outskirts of Dhuluiya, through al-Dujma across the river from Balad, and on to Tarmiyah. From this area, militants could also travel across unsecured desert to interact with other ISIS systems in the Hamrin Mountains and Tikrit.
Attacks to clear the lower Euphrates
In the western Baghdad belts, in the vicinity of Fallujah, ISIS has also expanded their operations in recent days. On September 21, ISIS militants overran an ISF military base in Saqlawiyah, northwest of Fallujah, after a multi-day siege, killing up to several hundred ISF members. Survivors reported that ISIS militants deployed an SVBIED and several SVESTs to breach the garrison’s defenses. The ability to concentrate and subsequently deploy a critical mass of forces in an active combat zone implies the presence of a nearby ISIS strategic reserve, likely located in the adjacent Thar Thar region. In conjunction with the attacks to the north of Baghdad, the location of the attack also suggests that ISIS elements in the Thar Thar area have been mobilized to cut ISF lines of communication to points in western Anbar, including Habbaniyah and Ramadi. The fall of the base in Saqlawiyah demonstrates the vulnerability of ISF positions on the outer Baghdad belt if ISIS efforts to isolate them from reinforcement and resupply are successful.
Baghdad locator map with ISIS control, attack, and support zones.
The Thar Thar region that stretches from Fallujah north to Samarra is a likely stronghold for ISIS, which took control of the Muthanna Complex there on June 11 - only a day after Mosul fell. The ISF have increasingly targeted villages on the southern edge of the region, such as Garma, after ISIS entered Fallujah in December 2013, but the evidence indicates that ISIS probably maintains a significant force in this zone. This ISIS force, along with elements in the northern Baghdad Belts near Taji and Balad, are likely responsible for attacks in northwestern Baghdad. They also likely contribute to attacks upon Samarra, Dhuluiya, and Balad. Combined with the ISIS force operating within Fallujah, this Thar Thar force was also likely responsible for the September 22 attack upon the ISF compound in Saqlawiyah, north of Fallujah. This force has been increasingly active in September 2014, a necessary reminder that ISIS still possesses the capacity to go on the offensive in the Baghdad zone. U.S. strategic planners appear to have recognized the threat posed by ISIS elements in the Thar Thar region. On September 23, one U.S. airstrike hit an ISIS vehicle northwest of Baghdad and on September 24 two additional U.S. airstrikes targeted ISIS armed vehicles to the west of Baghdad. These were the first strikes to be carried out in this area. A key measure for the effectiveness of these airstrikes will be whether ISIS can continue to mount further attacks forward of its primary control zones.