By Patrick Martin and ISW Iraq Team
Key take-Away: ISIS reportedly withdrew its forces from Hit District, west of Ramadi, ISIS’s first reported withdrawal from a major urban center in Iraq. Between March 8 and March 14, security forces west of Ramadi have made rapid progress in recapturing villages from ISIS and are reportedly less than seven miles from Hit District’s southern perimeter. Hit District is a critical town for the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) as it lies on the Euphrates River’s banks as well as the main ground line of communication between Ramadi and Haditha District, which relies on supplies delivered by air to the nearby Ain al-Asad Airbase. Its recapture will increase the capabilities of the ISF and tribal fighters in Haditha as well as humanitarian conditions in the besieged district by opening supply lines. Recapturing the Euphrates River Valley is a critical step in defeating ISIS, as opening fronts against ISIS in both western Anbar and in Ninewa Province will push ISIS further on the defensive. Reports indicate that “thousands” of civilians have fled north and south from Hit towards security forces, an indication of weakened ISIS social control over the town. ISIS’s force numbers in Hit remain unconfirmed, but the rapid advance of the ISF suggests either a low ISIS force presence or an intentional decision by ISIS not to defend villages south of Hit. Even if ISIS fighters do remain, which is a strong possibility, then there may not be enough for ISIS to hold civilians in the area to act as human shields for protection against airstrikes. ISIS had previously conducted a series of spectacular attacks across eastern Anbar, Baghdad, and Diyala between February 25 and February 29, likely to compel the ISF to delay operations in Hit and to exacerbate sectarian tensions that would have required security forces to redeploy away from front lines. ISIS likely calculated that Hit District was not defensible enough to resist a major ISF offensive. If true, the ceding of Hit District is an indicator that ISIS is on the defensive and withdrawing in order to defend higher priority areas or to muster the manpower for a major attack in either Iraq or Syria, where it has faced significant pressure particularly following the fall of Shaddadi, south of Hasakah City.