By Patrick Martin and ISW Iraq Team
Key Take-Away: The ISF made significant gains in Ramadi in December, clearing much of the city center and recapturing the government complex on December 28. ISIS launched a major attack on Haditha district, west of Ramadi, less than one week later, inflicting heavy casualties among the ISF and tribal fighters and briefly capturing three villages. The attack demonstrates ISIS’s continued capability to conduct significant ground operations in Anbar, despite the group’s loss of most of Ramadi. The ISF victory was also overshadowed by Saudi Arabia’s execution of prominent Shi’a cleric Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr on January 2, sparking outrage from Iran as well as Iraq’s religious establishment. Anti-interventionist leader of the Sadrist Trend political movement, Muqtada al-Sadr, condemned the execution, and his supporters protested in large numbers across Baghdad and the southern provinces on January 5. Iranian proxy militias called for the expulsion of the Saudi ambassador and the closure of the Saudi embassy one week after its first reopening since 1990. Iranian proxy militia and Popular Mobilization members protested on January 6 for protests likely intended to pressure Prime Minister Abadi into cutting off ties with Saudi Arabia. The proxy militias seek to demonstrate the necessity of Iranian support and the Popular Mobilization in the fight against ISIS at the expense of the Coalition and Iran’s regional opponents, such as Saudi Arabia and Turkey. They likely scheduled their demonstration to coincide with Iraq’s Army Day military parade in the Green Zone, occurring less than a kilometer away from the Baghdad protest site, to spoil the celebration of the ISF’s recent gains. The Prime Minister signaled an unwillingness to concede, and Foreign Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari suggested Iraq serve as a mediator between the two countries to mend relations while speaking in Tehran on January 6. However, Iranian proxy militias will continue pressuring PM Abadi to align more closely with Iran, and may be tempted to deploy targeted violence against Saudi assets or citizens, as they have done against Turkish and Qatari citizens in the past.