By Christopher Kozak
Key Takeaway: Iraqi Army units in Anbar province have adopted a largely defensive posture in October 2014, retreating to their bases and leaving the defense of most urban areas in the hands of local Iraqi Police and Sunni tribal forces. The recent success of ISIS offensives in western Anbar will place the ISF in an inferior position for launching future counter-offensives. Many of the ISF units in Anbar are now understrength, suffer poor morale, and lack decisive leadership – leaving them vulnerable to ISIS attempts to isolate, encircle, and destroy the remaining Iraqi Army presence in the province. If the Iraqi Army cannot reinforce its positions and regain the offensive, the ISF may find itself hard-pressed to curb ISIS momentum in Anbar province and the western Baghdad Belts.
As demonstrated by the sudden fall of Hit district to ISIS forces on October 3, 2014, ISIS possesses significant offensive momentum in western Iraq which has not been entirely curbed by coalition airstrikes. As of October 29, 2014, ISF units augmented by local police and tribal forces man positions in Haditha, al-Asad Airbase, in the vicinity of Ramadi, and in Amiriyat al-Fallujah. Recently, on October 5, ISF units around Ramadi retreated from the city to their military headquarters. If the Iraqi Army cannot maintain these positions in outer Anbar, ISIS will exercise control of the Euphrates to project force into Amiriyat al-Fallujah, Abu Ghraib, and Baghdad itself. The poor performance of the Iraqi Army exemplified by retreats also threatens to raise the prominence of Iraqi Shi’a militias within the Iraqi military. These militias, which have won acclaim for their role in breaking the siege of Amerli in Salah ad-Din province in August and completing the clearing operation in Jurf al-Sakhar in northern Babil province on October 27, are highly sectarian and display ties to the Iranian government. Their rise at the expense of a national Iraqi Army poses an additional challenge to the Iraqi state.
Some of the disorganization in Anbar may be linked to leadership changes or losses. On October 7 - only a few days after reports of IA withdrawals in Ramadi and Hit – tribal leaders in Anbar province demanded that Anbar Operations Command chief Lieutenant General Rashid Flaih be removed from his post for “mishandling the security portfolio” in the province. On October 12, ISF leadership in the province took another blow when Anbar police chief Ahmed Saddak al-Dulaimi was assassinated by an IED, potentially weakening the command structure of the Iraqi Police units forming the front line of resistance against ISIS. Targeting local leaders to eliminate nodes of resistance is a long-standing ISIS tactic. On September 7, for example, Anbar governor Ahmed Khalaf al-Dulaimi was injured when ISIS militants attacked his convoy with rockets and on October 19 the commanding general of the Iraqi Army 8th Motorized Brigade was killed by a SVBIED at his headquarters in Amiriyat al-Fallujah.
However, Iraqi Army units in Anbar province suffer deficiencies of manpower and morale more broadly. This was true even before numerous Iraqi Army units deployed to reinforce Anbar in early 2014, but after many months of fighting these conditions may still prevail. The expansion of al-Jazeera and Badia Operations Command (JBOC) activities near Hit in mid-June and the deployment of elite Counter-Terrorism Services / Iraqi Army units east of Ramadi in early October, as well as an October 12 offer from the Badr Organization militia to intervene in Anbar province, may indicate a belief that Iraqi Army units under Anbar Operations Command have been put under severe pressure by recent events. In many cases, these units were already operating at reduced strength due to desertion and attrition. If the Iraqi Army cannot reinforce its positions and regain the offensive, the ISF may find itself hard-pressed to curb ISIS momentum in Anbar province and the western Baghdad Belts.
The following sections describe ISF units and their positions in key areas of Anbar province in greater detail. This information is a current estimate as of October 29, 2014.
The town of Haditha is garrisoned by a robust combination of Iraqi Army, Iraqi Police, and local tribal fighters. Units from the Iraqi Army 7th Infantry Division drawn from nearby Al-Asad Airbase remain on the frontlines in Haditha and have not adopted the passive stance seen in other areas of Anbar. Pro-government Sunni tribes – and particularly the al-Jughaifi tribe – maintain a highly active presence in Haditha and even engage in limited offensives on the outskirts of the district. Al-Jazeera and Badia Operations Command (JBOC) has coordinated effectively with the tribal fighters, providing them additional arms and convincing 28 local tribes to support ISF operations in the district on October 8. A unit of elite Counter-Terrorism Services (CTS) members is also present in Haditha. The active force posture of ISF units in Haditha likely reflects the importance which JBOC places on defending the nearby strategic Haditha Dam.
Al-Asad Airbase is the designated headquarters of the Iraqi Army 7th Infantry Division and remains the primary deployment location of the unit. However, the 7th Division was heavily depleted by desertions and had its leadership gutted by an ISIS ambush in Rutbah in December 2013 which killed the division commander and 17 members of his senior staff. Helicopter gunships and at least one unit of Emergency Response Brigade (SWAT) Iraqi Police are also reportedly located on the base. When ISF units retreated from Hit to their headquarters for ‘restructuring’ and withdrew from the surrounding areas, they likely pulled back to Al-Asad.
NORTHWEST OF RAMADI (INC. HIT)
The areas along the Euphrates northwest of Ramadi, including Hit, are primarily the operation zones of local Iraqi Police and pro-government Sunni tribes – particularly the Albu Nimr and Abu Risha tribes – who continue to resist ISIS encroachment. When Iraqi Army units retreated to their headquarters at Camp Hit on the northwestern outskirts of Hit city, these Iraqi Police and tribal units stayed behind to defend their home territory in Hit district as well as the surrounding areas. On October 6, al-Jazeera and Badia Operations Command (JBOC) announced that it was preparing an offensive to retake Hit and on October 9 JBOC stated that it had participated in airstrikes against ISIS fighters near Hit. However, the exact forces which JBOC will bring to bear remain unclear and on October 13 the last Iraqi Army unit in Camp Hit – the 1st Tank Regiment, 27th Mechanized Brigade, 7th Infantry Division - withdrew to al-Baghdadi, near Al-Asad Airbase, leaving behind most of its tanks and armored vehicles.
Ramadi has been a central hub of ISF activity in western Anbar since ISIS took control of Fallujah in January 2014. The headquarters complex of Anbar Operations Command (AOC) lies on the northern edge of the city, while a headquarters containing at least two battalions from the 8th Motorized Brigade, 2nd IA Motorized Division (serving under the operational command of the 7th Infantry Division with additional regiments in Habbaniyah and Amiriyat al-Fallujah) sits on the western outskirts. Pro-government Sunni tribes – including the Abu Risha tribe – and Iraqi Police also helped secure the city against ISIS attack. On October 2 additional Iraqi Army troops and possibly Shia volunteer units arrived in Ramadi to reinforce the city. However, on October 5 the Iraqi Army units in the city withdrew to their bases in Anbar Operations Command and the 8th Brigade headquarters. Reports indicated that several neighborhoods in Ramadi fell to ISIS after the withdrawal, but at least some ISF units still operate in the city proper. Recent ISIS postings suggest that Emergency Response Brigade (SWAT) Iraqi Police and possibly Iraqi Army soldiers still engage ISIS on the outskirts of the city, while a review of Twitter reports surrounding Ramadi appears to indicate that Iraqi Police and tribal fighters still resist ISIS advances into the city despite the withdrawal of most Iraqi Army forces. These remaining tribal and police units have performed well in urban operations, repelling a major ISIS assault on October 17 and clearing several areas in the city, but their ability to project force outside Ramadi’s urban core appears limited.
NORTHEAST OF RAMADI (INC. ALBU AITHA, INTERNATIONAL HIGHWAY)
A series of outposts held by Iraqi Army motorized regiments are scattered along the International Highway in a measure meant to protect the critical supply line connecting Ramadi to Baghdad. However, many of these units have been cut off and besieged by ISIS. News reports indicate that at least two units – the 10th Regiment, 30th Commando (Motorized) Brigade – Tank Battalion, 8th IA Division and the 2nd Regiment, 39th Motorized Brigade, 10th IA Division – have been surrounded in this manner. Both of these units come from southern Iraq and were deployed to Anbar province as reinforcements after the fall of Fallujah. The Iraqi Army appears to have committed portions of its elite units – including the Counter-Terrorism Services ‘Golden Division’ and the Iraqi Army 1st Rapid Reaction Force - to break the sieges of these outposts and reopen the supply lines to Ramadi.
Along with the precarious ISF positions in outer Anbar province detailed above, ISIS also threatens to overrun the strategic town of Amiriyat al-Fallujah. Amiriyat al-Fallujah is located in inner Anbar province, southeast of Fallujah, and controls access to the southwestern Baghdad Belts system, including Karbala and northern Babil province. Thus, the town occupies a critical node in the ISF defensive lines surrounding the capital. As of early October, Amiriyat al-Fallujah was garrisoned by at least one battalion of the Iraqi Army 8th Motorized Brigade as well as Iraqi Police and several local anti-ISIS Sunni tribes , including the Albu Issa, al-Fahailat, al-Halabsa, and Albu Alwan tribes. In response to reports that ISIS militants with armored vehicles and heavy weapons were surrounding Amiriyat al-Fallujah from three sides in preparation for an offensive, the Iraqi Army reinforced the area with unknown units from Baghdad and northern Babil province on October 17. After Iraqi Security Forces supported by coalition airstrikes repelled a major ISIS assault on Amiriyat al-Fallujah on October 22, the Iraqi Army deployed an additional two companies - totaling 200 soldiers - to the town. Two armored regiments were also sent to the town on 28 OCT after several additional ISIS offensives. The battle for Amiriyat al-Fallujah will be a key test of the ISF’s ability to resist ISIS ground advances in Anbar province and Iraq as a whole.