Thursday, January 15, 2015

The Clearing Of Iraq’s Jurf Al-Sakhr, Babil And Its Impact

After twelve unsuccessful tries the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) and militias were finally able to clear Jurf al-Sakhr, a long time Islamic State (IS) base in northeastern Babil in October 2014. Insurgents had been operating out of that section of the province since 2003 when it was known as the “Triangle of Death.” When IS was able to rebuild its networks after 2011 it began operating out of Jurf al-Sakhr. It became a center of car bombs and armed attacks upon Baghdad and into the southern half of the country. Government forces tried again and again to enter Jurf al-Sakhr throughout 2014, but were finally able to push the insurgents out in October. The consequences of this operation were far reaching. First, the entire population of the area was displaced, and they have not been able to return since then. On the other hand, security has dramatically improved not only in Babil, but in southern Iraq as well, but at what cost.  

Attacks In Babil 2014-2015
Jan 1-7

Security Operations In Northeast Babil 2014
1st January 6
2nd April 15
3rd April 20
4th May 11
5th End of May
6th June 18
7th July 8
8th July 28
9th July 29
10th August 1
11th September 13
12th September 20
13th October 21

Throughout 2014 the Iraqi Security Forces attempted to clear Jurf al-Sakhr with little to show for it. The first try was made on January 6, but had no real effect. In the following weeks there were five attacks from January 8-14, 7 from January 15-21, and six each from January 22-28 and January 29-31. These incidents were spread throughout central and northern Babil with 12 incidents in Jurf al-Sakhr, four in Musayib, and one in Iskandiriya in the northeast, four in Latifiya and Mahmudiya each in the north, and one each in Hillah and Mahawil in the center. IS used Jurf al-Sakhr to not only launch operations in Babil, but into Baghdad and Anbar provinces and southern Iraq. It was the major car bomb base in the south, and IS regularly moved forces back and forth between Jurf al-Sakhr and Amiriya Fallujah in neighboring Anbar.

Insurgent operations picked up during the first third of the year. There were a total of 36 attacks in January, which increased to 47 in February, and 50 in March. The situation got so bad that the army withdrew from the area in early April, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki sacked the head of the Babil Operations Command, and a new operation was immediately launched. A third was started on April 20 as well. Attacks actually went down from the start of the month with 20 from April 1-7 to 8 April 22-28, but there were still 60 total, the most so far of the year.

In May there were two more security operations, with only temporary effects. The first was started on May 11 after the Defense Ministry set up a special committee for northern Babil, and then there was another at the end of the month. Those appeared to decrease attacks with 31 from May 8-14, but then going down to 15 from May 15-21, 14 May 22-28, and six from May 29-31. During the security operations IS used its fighters to repel the government forces rather than using them to carry out regular attacks, and probably shifted forces into Anbar, which accounted for the decline. To show that IS was still strong in the area it posted pictures that month of it taking down security checkpoints using cranes and bulldozers.

In June attacks went down from 87 in May to 59. IS probably moved some of its fighters into neighboring Anbar for operations there during the summer offensive. June 18 the government also launched its sixth security operation in Jurf al-Sakhr, again to little affect as incidents went from 8 from June 15-21 to 24 the next week.

The continued futility of government sweeps was seen in July, August, and September During those months six more security operations were begun on July 8, July 28, July 29, August 1, September 13, and September 20 in the Jurf al-Sakhr and Latifiya areas. On August 14 the army actually withdrew from Fadiliya in Jurf al-Sakhr, only to come back the next month. As usual attacks in the province remained high as well with 65 in July, 71 in August, before a drop to 43 in September. That last month a parliamentarian said that the ISF had actually avoided going into the main areas of Jurf al-Sakhr, because it was impenetrable with IEDs and booby-traps. Another lawmaker later complain that Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki constantly interfered with the ISF by appointing commanders over the objections of the provincial council.

October was when the final breakthrough was made in Jurf al-Sakhr. The start of the month looked like it would be just like the previous nine. The Babil Operations Command announced that the army and militias were carrying out the second phase of its on going operation in Jurf al-Sakhr, which started on September 20. That flowed right into the thirteenth sweep that began on October 21. This involved around 4,000-10,000 ISF and militiamen with Badr Organization head Hadi Ameri in charge. General Qasim Suleimani the commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps Quds Force was involved in planning the operation as well. This force reached the center of Jurf al-Sakhr in just three days. Prime Minister Haider Abadi praised the victory, and visited the battle site on October 25. The success of the operation was due to the overwhelming numbers that were massed in the area. IS probably only had a few hundred fighters in Jurf al-Sakhr, which was no match for the thousands arrayed against it. After thirteen tries, Baghdad had finally overcome this insurgent stronghold. The big push was made in part to ensure the safety of pilgrims travelling from northern and central Iraq to Karbala for an annual pilgrimage.

The impact of finally defeating IS in Jurf al-Sakhr was seen in the following weeks. First, attacks in Babil dropped from 44 in October to 35 in November, and 27 in December. The location of IS activity also shifted to the northern section of the province where the militants had fled to. In October there were 18 attacks in Jurf al-Sakhr and four in neighboring Iskandiriya, and nine in Mahmudiya, six in Yusifiya, and five in Latifiya to the north by the Baghdad border. By November the fighting had shifted to that latter area with 9 incidents in Yusifiya, 8 in Mahmudiya, and 7 in Latifiya compared to 6 in Jurf al-Sakhr, 4 in Iskandiriya, and one in Musayib. Similarly in December there were 9 attacks in Yusifiya, 6 in Mahmudiya, and 4 in Latifiya with just seven between Jurf al-Sakhr and Iskandiriya.

The loss of Jurf al-Sakhr also improved security throughout southern Iraq. The town was the major car bomb factory of the Islamic State in the area. Without it IS was not able to launch anymore vehicle borne improvised explosive devices (VBIEDs) into the region. On October 24 Najaf was hit, but there has not been a similar bombing since then. Instead IS has concentrated upon hitting civilian and military targets in Babil with 4 VBIEDs in November and December each. Before that a VBIED had gone off almost every month in southern Iraq in 2014. In February Wasit was bombed, followed by Karbala and Wasit in March, Maysan, Muthanna, and Wasit in April, Basra, Dhi Qar, Karbala, Najaf, and Wasit in June, Basra in July, Karbala and Wasit in August, Basra, Karbala, Najaf, and Qadisiyah in September, and Karbala and Najaf in October. In fact, the total number of car bombs has gone down since October with 74 that month, 59 in November and 21 in December. Jurf al-Sakhr cannot account for all of that, but it has definitely had an impact.

Car Bombings In Southern Iraq 2014-2015
Feb 3
Mar 6
Mar 18

Apr 9

Apr 20
Apr 21
Jun 2
Dhi Qar

Jun 11


Jul 5
Aug 11
Aug 25
Sep 11


Sep 18
Sep 30

Oct 20
Oct 24

The success of the October operation in northeast Babil came at a price. The entire population of some 70,000-80,000 was forced out due to the fighting. Local officials and government forces would not let them return afterward. A parliamentarian from Babil said that people would not be able to go back to their homes until the area had been cleared of thousands of explosives. He estimated that would take up to six months. Other reports said it would be 8-10 months before anyone would be let back into Jurf al-Sakhr. Until then the region was being converted into a military base for further operations in eastern Anbar and northern Babil. Militiamen were also seen burning down homes in the town after it was taken. These tactics have been used in parts of Salahaddin and Diyala. There militias emptied entire towns as well, burned and blew up homes, and banned residents from coming back. This was based upon the belief that local Sunnis were pro-Islamic State and seen as the support base for the insurgents. To ensure that the areas would remain clear the militias were carrying out sectarian cleansings.

For most of 2014 it appeared that Jurf al-Sakhr would be an exercise in futility for the Iraqi Security Forces, but that finally changed in October. A huge force of several thousand soldiers and militiamen was amassed with Iranian advisers to finally clear the area. Security in Babil and southern Iraq has dramatically improved since then. Who didn’t benefit were the local residents who were all displaced and are now in refugee camps due to the militias and government. They are being collectively punished for staying in Jurf al-Sakhr when it was under IS control. Unfortunately the current war is slowly but surely repeating the same destructive tactics that were used in the last civil war. That resulted in the expulsion of Sunnis from most of Baghdad and 2 million people who were never able to return to their homes. This conflict is heading in the same direction.


Buratha News, “Babylon operations: start of the second phase of the liberation of Jurf al-Sakhr after cutting the supply lines to Anbar,” 10/4/14
- “Desert road link between Jurf al-Sakhr and Amiriyat Fallujah Secured,” 10/20/14

Al Forat, “Babel….Volunteers brigades liberate Fadiliya area from ISIL terrorists,” 10/23/14
- “Jurf I-Sakhar: Second key official of ISIL killed,” 10/9/14
- “More than 100 terrorists surrender to ISF in Babel,” 10/22/14
- “Wide security operation conducted in northern Babel,” 1/7/14

Kirkpatrick, David, “Sunnis Fear Permanent Displacement From Iraqi Town,” New York Times, 12/5/14

Al Mada, “Babylon demanding four additional regiments to secure Jurf al-Sakhr and lakes,” 12/30/14
- “Daash hold area north of Jurf al-Sakhr..and clearing explosives will require 6 months,” 10/27/14
- “Iraqi army and the militias entering the center of Jurf al-Sakhr on the one hand and waving the Iraqi flag over the main buildings,” 10/24/14
- “Jurf al-Sakhr: Daash use Euphrates River..and 100 militants turned themselves in,” 10/21/14
- “Jurf al-Sakhr documents reveal Daash places and weapons,” 11/1/14
- “Three kilometers shunned by soldiers and Daash to keep them in northern Babylon,” 9/17/14

Al Masalah, “Peace Brigades announces the liberation of parts of the lakes area and through the Green believe to free the entire north of Babylon,” 10/6/14

Morris, Loveday, “Iraq’s victory over militants in Sunni town underlines challenges government faces,” Washington Post, 10/29/14

National Iraqi News Agency, “7 militants of (IS) killed in Jurf al-Sakhar,” 10/7/14
- “Abadi visits the liberated district of Jurf al-Sakhar from the IS,” 10/25/14
- “A cache of weapons and ammunition found, north of Babylon,” 12/12/14
- “Massive Military Operation Northwest Of Hilla to Expel Terrorists,” 10/23/14
- “The operation of Jurf al-Sakhar will have a deep impact in the final defeat of the IS,” 10/24/14
- “The security forces and the popular crowd liberated al- Hujayr area north of Jurf al-Sakhar,” 10/26/14

New Sabah, “Purge Fadhiliya North Babylon and control over the desert road between Jurf al-Sakhr and Fallujah,” 9/19/14
- “Security file,” 10/21/14

Parker, Ned and Rasheed, Ahmed, “Special Report: Inside Iraq’s ‘killing zones,’” Reuters, 12/17/14

Al Rayy, “The arrival of large military reinforcements to Jurf al-Sakhr north of Babylon,” 9/24/14

Reuters, “After victory in key Iraqi town, time for revenge,” 10/26/14

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