Friday, June 27, 2014

Iraq’s Northern Front Stalemate In Salahaddin


Salahaddin was where the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) and militias stopped the insurgent’s surge south from Mosul. That was not before nearly half of the province fell to militants. Salahaddin became where the government drew the line because it contains the Askari shrine in Samarra, which is important not only for Baghdad, but the militias and Iran. Since that time the fight in the governorate has settled into a war of attrition, foreshadowing what the battle against the militants will be like in the entire country. 

 ISIS destroying an ISF outpost in Salahaddin (via Alexandre Massimo)


Islamic Army of Iraq in Salahaddin (via Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi)




ISIS victory parade in Baiji after its fall featuring captured ISF HUMVEES (via Alexandre Massimo)
 ISIS fighter in front of a destroyed HUMVEE in Tuz Kharmoto district (via Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi)

Images released by ISIS of its massacre of captured soldiers in Tikrit (via Alexandre Massimo)
 Burnt out HUMVEE destroyed in Tikrit by Naqshibandi (via Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi)
 HUMVEE captured at army base in Tikrit by Naqshibandi (via Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi)

After the Fall of Mosul the insurgents charged south for Baghdad, but were stopped in Salahaddin. June 10, 2014 the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) collapsed in Ninewa province, and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) and other insurgent groups immediately went for the capital. They took Highway 2 south taking Shirqat and Baiji in northern Salahaddin, while another force went through western Kirkuk and ended up taking Sulaiman Bek in the western part of the province. They stopped outside the provincial capital of Tikrit. Like in Ninewa most of the ISF fled, sometimes without putting up a fight. The army depot in Baiji for example was abandoned leaving behind all the weapons and supplies for the insurgents. This also led the peshmerga to move into the Tuz Khurmato district in the west to fill the security vacuum left by the retreating security forces. The Tuz area is also a disputed area that the Kurdish regional government has long claimed. The next day the militants took Tikrit, and launched an assault upon Samarra, which was repulsed. It was during this period that ISIS released pictures on social media claiming that it had executed 1,700 soldiers who were captured in Tikrit. That was made for propaganda purposes, and Human Rights Watch believes that around 160-190 men were actually killed in two locations in the city. By June 14 the ISF had rallied a bit and were able to clear Dhuluiya, which is to the east of Samarra, and Ishaqi that is to the west of Balad, while holding onto the Tikrit air base. By that time there was a general mobilization in the country after Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani called on the public to support the security services. Militias also moved into Samarra to help the army and police protect the Askari shrine there.
Smoke billowing from the Baiji refinery which the ISF has been able to hold after several ISIS attacks

Army and Asaib Ahl Al-Haq militia units operating outside of Samarra (via Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi)
Funeral in Najaf for a Badr militiamen killed in Samarra (via Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi)

Today Salahaddin represents how even if the ISF and militias stand and fight it will be a long and bloody war ahead of them to defeat the insurgency. Neither the militants nor the government have been able to make much headway since June 14. Ishaqi for example was cleared that day, then again on June 19, and then a third time on June 25. To the west ISIS has repeatedly clashed with the peshmerga and Turkmen units in the Tuz Kharmato area, but have gained no ground. Militants have also attacked Balad air base. The real point of contention has been the Baiji refinery, which is one of the largest producers of fuel in the country. Despite continued assaults by tribes and ISIS and most of the guards and army units withdrawing the ISF were able to hold onto the facility. Ishaqi shows how even if the government is able to retake an area it lacks the capability to hold it. This has been repeated again and again in Anbar for the last six months where the ISF has cleared a town and then left allowing the insurgents to move right back in, requiring another operation and another and another. In western Salahaddin ISIS has run into the Kurdish and Turkmen forces and made little headway, but Irbil is content with just holding onto the disputed areas and not moving forward. That means there will be constant clashes along this area between Sulaiman Bek and Tuz Kharmato but nothing decisive. Baiji refinery has been held for now due to some valiant fighting by a SWAT unit, but the Islamic State is not going to give up as the facility could provide a huge source of fuel for Mosul and other territory it has captured in northern Iraq. Finally, Samarra is too important for Baghdad, the militias or Iran to let it fall. That has led to the current stalemate in the province.

Salahaddin is one area of Iraq where the Iraqi forces have stopped running and put up a fight. They have been able to hold onto roughly the southern half of the province with the Kurds securing the western section. In the future some new towns may fall to the insurgents, and others could be taken back, but the battle lines are pretty much set and the two sides are facing a long war ahead of them. Samarra has become a rallying cry for the government, the militias, and Iran, and the government has been able to hold onto the Baiji refinery. Those have both blunted the militants’ fast war of maneuver. At the same time, the ISF and militias have not proven successful at retaking and holding any territory as has happened in Ishaqi. The larger problem is that Baghdad has no strategy on how to turn around the security situation. That has left it and its militia allies to simply shoot it out with the insurgents, which will be a very long and costly endeavor.

SOURCES

Agence France Presse, “Jihadists take areas in Iraq’s Salaheddin province,” 6/10/14
- “Iraq’s Tikrit falls to militants: police,” 6/11/14

AIN, "Samara Operations Command, 100 security elements besieged inside air base in Tikrit," 6/14/14
- “Security forces supported by tribes free Baiji district from ISIL elements,” 6/11/14

Buratha News, “Army regains control of Ishaqi Saladin after being cleared,” 6/25/14
- “Daash terrorists control Mosul and battles in the east of Tikrit,” 6/11/14
- “Defense Announces cleansing ISHAQI and grab large quantities of weapons and wheels,” 6/19/14
- “Terrorists seize weapon caches belonging to the army in northern Baiji,” 6/10/14

Daily Star, “Iraq forces repel militant assault on Samarra: witnesses,” 6/11/14

Al Forat, “Salah al-Din: Big ISIL military show in Sheikh Hamad village,” 6/10/14
- “Tuz Khormato freed of ISIL control,” 6/17/14

Fox News, “Sunni militants reportedly take control of small oil fields, attack air base in Iraq,” 6/25/14

Human Rights Watch, “Iraq: ISIS Execution Site Located,” 6/27/14

Hussein, Muhammed, van den Toorn, Christine, and Osgood, Patrick, “Clashes and tension along Kurdistan’s new border,” Iraq Oil Report, 6/26/14

Lando, Ben, Van Heuvelen, ben, Najm, Jamal, and Tahir, Rawaz, “Baiji refinery nearly falls to insurgents,” Iraq Oil Report, 6/25/14

Al Mada, “Daash attacking army barracks east of Tikrit and its members are fleeing checkpoints in the region,” 6/10/14

National Iraqi News Agency, “The armed forces prepare to launch an operation of cleansing the road Baghdad-Samarar,” 6/25/14
- “BREAKING NEWS. Daash gunmen burning building of Salhuddin provincial council,” 6/11/14
- “Breaking News..Gunmen occupy Sulaiman Bek district, south of Kirkuk,” 6/10/14
- “Breaking News..Iraqi flag was raised over the building of the University of Tikrit after cleansing it from the ISIS elements,” 6/26/14
- “Breaking News..ISIS elements escape from al-Alam district in Salah al-Din and the police regain control it,” 6/26/14
- “The ISIS gunmen seize control on a checkpoint north of Tikrit and violent clashes in Tikrit Air Base,” 6/10/14
- “The militants control al-Dour district,” 6/11/14
- “Samarra Operations Command regains control (Ishaqi) area north of Baghdad,” 6/14/14

Al Rayy, “Cleansing Mutassim south of Tikrit of elements of Daash,” 6/20/14
- “Security forces and the support of tribes liberate Dhuluiya from elements of Daash,” 6/14/14

Shafaq News, “Daash control villages north of Tikrit, violent battles to control others,” 6/10/14

Sly, Liz and Hauslohner, Abigail, “Shiite militia seizes control of Iraqi town, slowing ISIS drive toward Baghdad,” Washington Post, 6/14/14

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