Saturday, May 23, 2015

Musings On Iraq In The News

I was interviewed for this article by Jacob Siegel "U.S. May Cooperate With Iran-Backed Militias" for the Daily Beast. I was quoted in “After ISIS Executes Hundreds In Ramadi, Shiite Militias, Sunni Tribesmen Join The Battle For Anbar,” by Alessandria Masi for the International Business Times.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Why Did Iraq’s Ramadi Fall To The Islamic State?

The fall of Ramadi in Iraq’s Anbar province sent shockwaves through the country and the west. The fact that a large government force fell to a smaller attacking one of the Islamic State (IS) recalled memories of Mosul being seized in June 2014. Talk of sleeper cells and infiltrators amongst the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) made it seem like there were traitors in the midst. The real cause of IS being able to take the city however was the degraded forces that were protecting it, and the tactics used by the insurgents.

May 17, 2015 Anbar’s provincial capital of Ramadi fell to the Islamic State. The militants used deception, earth moving equipment, and huge explosives to break the city’s defense, plus set up blocking forces around the perimeter to stop relief from arriving. On the first day of the attack on May 14, IS approached the government center wearing Iraqi Security Forces uniforms. This allowed them to get close enough to take the guards by surprise. IS then brought up armored bulldozers to take down the protective barriers, allowing eight suicide car bombs to attack the facility. Mortar fire and an infantry attack into the breach created by the explosions were able to take the center by the next day. Most of the soldiers then retreated from this position to the Anbar Operations Command center to the northwest leaving the police and tribal fighters to face the militants on their own. The latter two were the least armed and were eventually overrun. Three more suicide car bombs then were used to attack the Anbar Operations facility. The following day another car bomb was used to destroy the Tamim Bridge that crossed the Euphrates River that divides the city. Finally, four suicide car bombs were used against government forces in Malab and another three in the final assault upon the Anbar Operations Command, which led to its capture by the insurgents, and the ISF to begin to flee the city. According to a State Department official, a total of 30 suicide vehicle borne improvised explosive devices (VBIEDs) were used to take Ramadi. Ten were armored dump trucks, each of which were said to pack the same amount of explosives as used in the Oklahoma City bombing of 1995. These VBIEDs were so big they flattened entire blocks. The ISF had no weapons on hand that could penetrate the armor of these vehicles. Second, IS employed sleeper cells within the city. This was used in recent attacks in other cities in Anbar. The Islamic State was able to place these fighters within the city because they’d been fighting for control of it since December 2013 giving it plenty of time to embed its forces in sensitive areas before offensives. Finally, a defensive ring was set up around Ramadi to block any relief effort. On May 15, Baghdad dispatched three units to help relieve the city. These never made it however as they were attacked by IS before even reaching Ramadi, and turned back. The car bombs were able to overcome the defenses of the major ISF centers within Ramadi, and helped break the morale. The sleeper cells were also able to collect intelligence, and launch surprise attacks upon targeted areas. IS also predicted the routes outside government forces would take to try to get into the city. It successfully blocked them sealing the fate of the defenders.

The last major factor contributing to the taking of Ramadi was the depleted state of the government forces. The same units had been deployed to the city for a year without leave. Only a Federal Police Brigade and 1,000 sahwa supplemented these forces since the summer of 2014. Many of the soldiers in Ramadi had not been paid for six months. Units were also not receiving parts to repair their vehicles leaving many out of commission in the months of fighting. Despite all this the forces within the city were able to hold out for the last seventeen months against repeated IS assaults. They paid a heavy toll, and were slowly losing control of the city’s districts. According to the State Department official IS had approximately half of Ramadi under its sway for a year and gained more ground in April. This was not a sudden collapse then, but rather the result of a year plus campaign to capture the provincial capital. This had broken down the defending forces and steadily gained control of most of the city before finally taking the urban core.

The fall of Ramadi was a long time coming. The Islamic State had been trying to take the city since the end of 2013. It had steadily gained ground in the city giving it close proximity to the remaining outposts of the government forces. Using huge truck bombs it was able to break its way into these complexes and eventually rout the defenders. They on the other hand had been holding out for months with little help from the Anbar Operations Command or Baghdad. The fact that most of the city’s inhabitants fled in the fighting over the past several months showed that it was not IS sympathizers that stabbed the government in the back either. Rather it was result of a war of attrition that finally succeeded.


AIN, "Car bomb explodes on Al-Tameem bridge, western Ramadi," 5/16/15

Associated Press, "Amid battles with ISIS, suicide attacks kill 10 people in Iraq," 5/15/15

BBC, "Islamic State crisis: Militants seize Ramadi stronghold," 5/15/15

Knights, Michael, “Retaking Ramadi: U.S. Assistance and Shiite-Sunni Cooperation,” Washington Institute for Near East Policy, 5/19/15

Al Made, “The arrival of three combat battalions to regain the control of the Ramadi area from the grip of Dash,” 5/15/15

Neely, Bill, “Analysis: ‘Ghost Soldiers,’ Ineffective Strikes Allow ISIS to Seize Ramadi,” NBC, 5/20/15

Prather, Mitchel, “Islamic State consolidates grip on Ramadi: executions reported,” McClatchy Newspapers, 5/16/15

Reggie, Bill and Weiss, Caleb, "Islamic State seizes government center in Ramadi," Long War Journal, 5/15/15

U.S. Department of State, “Background Briefing on Iraq,” 5/20/15

Xinhua, “IS militants capture government compound in Iraq’s Ramadi,” 5/15/15

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Intra-Shiite Rivalries In Iraq As Kataib Hezbollah Raids ISCI Office

While much of the reporting on the Iraq focuses upon the sectarian dimension within the country, mostly overlooked are the internal Shiite divisions. This might actually be more important as these parties rule the country. The rise of the Hashd al-Shaabi poses a long-term threat to the Shiite establishment due to their widespread popularity. Recently Kataib Hezbollah (KH) raided an office of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI) in Basra, leading the latter to issue a blistering condemnation. More of these confrontations are likely to happen in the future as these groups jockey for position in post-Islamic State Iraq.

At the start of May 2015 Kataib Hezbollah and the Supreme Council got into a spat that showed the intra-Shiite rivalries in Iraq. KH raided an ISCI office in Basra, looting it and destroying equipment. KH had been attacking a local Supreme Council official in Basra for corruption, which seemed to be the precipitating factor. KH also used a friendly media outlet to critique the head of the Supreme Council Ammar Hakim accusing him of denying the terrorist charges against former Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi. In return, ISCI attacked KH for attempting to undermine reconciliation and the National Alliance, which is the coalition that includes the Supreme Council and the Sadrists. A source within the Supreme Council said that Kataib Hezbollah wanted to turn its battlefield success into political power afterward, which would usurp the National Alliance. The ISCI response was apt, because it laid bare the fear that some Shiite parties are feeling about the Hashd. They are immensely popular with the Iraqi street because of their fighting forte. They could easily use this to promote themselves in upcoming elections. The parties that would lose votes in the process would be the established Shiite religious parties.

ISCI joins Moqtada al-Sadr as two political groups, which have begun criticizing the Hashd. Sadr has attacked what he calls “brazen militias” who have carried out killings of civilians, undermined the government and do not follow the orders of the Iraqi Security Forces. He has made these statements several times. This is due to his long time rivalry with groups such as Asaib Ahl Al-Haq, but also because he like ISCI see the dilemma the Hashd could pose to his movement. All of these groups are religiously based and therefore are competing for the same constituency. The Badr Organization and Asaib Ahl Al-Haq ran in the last parliamentary elections, and whose to say how many of the new Hashd groups may decide to join the political process after the insurgency is defeated. As a result it is likely that more of these incidents will occur, and verbal spats will increase in frequency as these organizations continue to fight the Islamic State on the battlefield, while vying for support on the home front.


Al Arabiya, “Iraqi Hezbollah storm the headquarters of the Supreme Council in Basra,” 5/11/15

Habib, Mustafa, “Whose Side Are They On?” Niqash, 5/14/15

Iraq News Network, “Hezbollah Brigades and the League of the Righteous challenge sedition in Iraq,” 5/12/15

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Continued Heavy Fighting In Iraq 2nd Week of May 2015

There was more heavy fighting, and an uptick in terrorist attacks in Iraq during the second week of May 2015. In Anbar the government continued to try to gain back territory it lost last month. The battle for control of the Baiji refinery was on going in Salahaddin, while in Baghdad and Diyala there were mass casualty bombings. The Islamic State looks to be trying to counter attack in selected areas and launching more terrorist bombings to make up for its recent losses.

There were 154 attacks reported in the media from May 8-14, 2015. That was the exact same amount as the week before. The actual numbers are always higher. That averaged out to 22.0 attacks per day, which was on par with April’s 21.1. Baghdad continued to be the most violent with 46 incidents. Anbar was next with 36, Salahaddin had 22, Diyala 18, Babil 8, Kirkuk 7, and Najaf 1.

Those attacks led to 419 dead and 549 wounded. The former was made up of four peshmerga, six sahwa, 9 Hashd al-Shaabi, 91 members of the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF), and 310 civilians. The latter consisted of seven peshmerga, 20 Hashd, 28 sahwa, 110 ISF, and 384 civilians. Salahaddin was the deadliest province with 113 fatalities, followed by 99 in Baghdad, 89 in Diyala, 74 in Anbar, 26 in Ninewa, 13 in Kirkuk, five in Babil, and one in Najaf. Again, the real casualty figures are likely much more than what gets into the press.

Violence In Iraq By Week 2015
Jan 1-7
Jan 8-14
Jan 15-21
Jan 22-28
Jan 29-31
Feb 1-7
Feb 8-14
Feb 15-21
Feb 22-28
687 + 386
Mar 1-7
Mar 8-14
Mar 15-21
Mar 22-28
Mar 29-31
2,459 + 4
2,371 + 150
Apr 1-7
Apr 8-14
Apr 15-21
Apr 22-28
Apr 29-30
162 + 7
182 + 299
May 1-7
May 8-14

Violence In Iraq By Province May 2015
May 1-7
May 8-14
34 Incidents
75 Killed: 21 ISF, 30 Hashd, 24 Civilians
103 Wounded: 54 ISF, 49 Civilians
15 Shootings
19 IEDs
1 Suicide Bomber
2 Suicide Car Bombs
2 Mortars
2 Rockets
36 Incidents
74 Killed: 16 ISF, 2 Sahwa, 9 Hashd, 47 Civilians
176 Wounded: 62 ISF, 7 Hashd, 26 Sahwa, 81 Civilians
26 Shootings
14 Suicide Car Bombs
4 Mortars
8 Incidents
5 Killed: 5 Civilians
20 Wounded: 5 Hashd, 15 Civilians
1 Shooting
3 IEDs
2 Sticky Bombs
1 Sound Bomb
68 Incidents
105 Killed: 3 ISF, 1 Sahwa, 101 Civilians
234 Wounded: 7 ISF, 5 Sahwa, 222 Civilians
28 Shootings
28 IEDs
4 Sticky Bombs
1 Suicide Car Bomb
2 Car Bombs
1 Rockets
46 Incidents
99 Killed: 2 ISF, 3 Sahwa, 94 Civilians
218 Wounded: 9 ISF, 2 Sahwa, 207 Civilians
15 Shootings
22 IEDs
1 Sticky Bomb
1 Suicide Car Bomb
3 Car Bombs
1 Mortar
1 Incident
1 Shooting
9 Incidents
23 Killed: 3 ISF, 1 Asayesh, 19 Civilians
23 Wounded: 8 ISF, 3 Asayesh, 12 Civilians
4 Shootings
2 IEDs
1 Sticky Bomb
18 Incidents
89 Killed: 10 ISF, 1 Sahwa, 78 Civilians
66 Wounded: 7 ISF, 59 Civilians
7 Shootings
5 IEDs
1 Suicide Bomber
2 Suicide Car Bombs
9 Incidents
10 Killed: 1 Peshmerga, 1 Hashd, 8 Civilians
17 Wounded: 4 Peshmerga, 13 Civilians
4 Shootings
3 IEDs
1 Mortar
7 Incidents
13 Killed: 4 Peshmerga, 9 Civilians
6 Wounded: 5 Peshmerga, 1 Civilian
4 Shootings
11 Incidents
342 Killed: 324 Civilians
5 Shootings
25 IEDs
17 Incidents
26 Killed: 2 ISF, 24 Civilians
2 Wounded: 2 Peshmerga
8 Shootings
20 IEDs
1 Sticky Bomb
22 Incidents
89 Killed: 79 ISF, 8 Hashd, 2 Civilians
73 Wounded: 54 ISF, 10 Hashd, 9 Civilians
22 Incidents
113 Killed: 61 ISF, 52 Civilians
61 Wounded: 32 ISF, 8 Hashd, 21 Civilians
13 Shootings
1 Suicide Car Bomb
1 Car Bomb
1 Mortar

Car Bombs In Iraq May 2015
May 1

May 2
Garma, Anbar
Karrada x2, Baghdad
May 3

May 4
Baiji Refinery, Salahaddin
May 5
Garma, Anbar
Karrada, Baghdad
May 6

May 7
Baiji x2, Dour, Hamrin x2, Salahaddin
May 8
Baladrooz & Kanaan, Diyala
May 9
Karrada, Baghdad
May 10
Fallujah x3, Anbar
Shaab, Baghdad
Taji & Tarmiya, Salahaddin
May 11

May 12
Sadoun St & Tahrir Sq, Baghdad
May 13

May 14
Dulab x9 & Jubba x2, Anbar

The Islamic State has been picking up its vehicle borne improvised explosive devices (VBIEDs) and the second week of May was no exception. There were 22 car bombs during the week, double the amount from the previous week. There were 14 successful VBIEDs in Anbar alone with three used in fighting outside of Fallujah on May 10, and then 11 in Dulab and Jubba on May 14. There were four in Baghdad, two of which targeted pilgrims heading towards Kadhimiya for the Imam Kadhim shrine. Finally, Diyala witnessed two mass casualty bombings as well against mosques there. In total, 73 people were killed and 206 injured from these attacks.

In the second week of May government forces continued their drive to retake lost territory in central Anbar. On May 8 central Ramadi was declared secure. Two days later most of Garma was secured, and there were sweeps through Albu Faraj, eastern Sufiya, Thar Thar, and Habaniya Lake. At the end of the week new operations were being launched in Dulab and Baghdadi as well. Finally, there was fighting on the outskirts of Fallujah as well for several days. The Islamic State responded with constant counter attacks in all of those areas, which resulted in the fall of Ramadi during the weekend. That highlighted the precarious security situation in the province. Government forces are simply spread too thin in the area. They can make an advance in one area, and have IS make gains in another. There has been an on going debate that the Hashd al-Shaabi should be deployed to Anbar to help, but some elements have already been deployed there for a few weeks now. From May 8-15, 9 Hashd were killed and 7 wounded in fighting there. The problem is the vast size of the governorate can swallow up forces, and the government is still divided on how much assistance to provide to the tribes and security forces there because there are fears that they are either IS supporters or former insurgents.

In the first week of May there were no reported attacks in Babil. That didn’t mean there was no violence there, but highlights the limits of war reporting in Iraq right now. There are large swaths of the country that get little to no coverage. During the second week of the month there were eight incidents in the province, resulting in 5 killed and 20 wounded. Attacks were a little different form usual. While some incidents were in the north in places like Yusifiya and Mahmudiya where IS has tried to regroup after losing its stronghold of Jurf al-Sakhr at the end of last year, there were others in the center. Hillah was struck twice with a sticky bomb and a sound bomb. This was the first time the provincial capital had been hit since March. Still, security is greatly improved in the province since the fall of Jurf al-Sakhr, and IS has not been able to recover in Babil since then.

Baghdad remained a major target during the week with 46 attacks there. That was actually down from the previous few weeks when there was over nine attacks per day. In the second week of May there was an average of 6.7 incidents per day. IEDs remained the main form of attack with 22, but there were also four mass casualty car bombs, three of which were aimed at pilgrims. That cost the lives of 27 people and wounded another 67. After the summer offensive in 2014 the Islamic State shifted away from sending car bombs to the capital. In the last month that has changed with more VBIEDs being sent there to inflict civilian casualties as IS losses ground on the battlefield. Finally, there has been a large increase in the number of bodies dumped in the capital. In the first two weeks there were a total of 39 bodies discovered, which surpasses the 38 that turned up in all of April. While insurgents might be behind some of these murders the locations of where the bodies were left points towards militias. These extra judicial killings usually correspond with feelings of insecurity spreading. For example, there was a huge jump in these incidents during the summer after the fall of Mosul when there were fears that the capital might fall. The fighting around Ramadi in Anbar led to a wave of displaced arriving in the capital. This led to rumors that some of them were Islamic State infiltrators, and they were subsequently blamed for the increase in terrorist attacks, which could be the motivations behind the latest surge of killings.  

There was a huge jump in casualties in Diyala due to two car bombings there. In the first week of May there were 23 killed and 23 wounded. The next week that jumped to 89 deaths and 66 injured. On May 8 suicide car bombs were set off in Baladrooz and Kanaan near mosques, which killed 22 and injured another 59, 52% of the total casualties for the week. Besides that there were kidnappings, shootings, a few IEDs mostly in the middle of the province, which the government claimed it cleared a few months ago, and a prison break by IS in Khalis in which at least 42 prisoners were able to escape. The situation has gotten so bad that there are weekly complaints in the press by Diyala officials about IS sleeper cells. It appears that the insurgency is still well established there.

In Kirkuk violence remained at a low level, but there has been a spate of extrajudicial killings there. During the 2nd week of May four bodies were found. The week before another four were discovered. These types of incidents have increased over the last month or so. In Hawija in the south IS also executed a family of five. Islamic State regularly carries out executions of people that break its rules or are considered working with the government.

The Islamic State continued to poke Kurdish forces in Ninewa. Throughout the week Sinjar was attacked, but IS was regularly turned back, usually with the help of Coalition air strikes and reportedly suffered heavy casualties. IS also executed 24 people, including 20 employees of the Badush prison on May 13, and blew up part of another Christian church and a mosque in Mosul.

Salahaddin was the other major battlefront with continued fighting for the Baiji refinery. By May 12 it was reported that reinforcements had reached the Baiji area to relieve the beleaguered ISF unit within the facility. The next day several sections of the refinery and two watchtowers were said to be back in government hands. Still, it appeared that the militants were still in control of a large portion of the sprawling refinery. The government also launched an operation in the Hamrin mountains and claimed that it was a success a few days later. This was done to help secure the neighboring Alas and Ajeel oil fields, which IS had attacked recently. The Hamrin area has been an insurgent stronghold for years however and was never cleared even when the Americans were in the country. In fact, the ISF were carrying out sweeps there the month before showing that it is still an unstable part of the province.


Agence France Presse, "Security failures behind Iraq prison break: mayor," 5/10/15

AIN, "Daash gangs executes a family in Hawija," 5/9/15
- "Shock troops reach the outskirts of Baiji refinery with the freeing of the main gates," 5/12/15

Alsumaria, "The security forces and the popular crowd dominate the Hamrin Mountains region and plug the hole in Salah al-Din," 5/12/15,

Al Mada, "Killing and wounding 16 people in bombing in central Baghdad," 5/12/15
- "Killing 27 Daash elements in security operation east of Tikrit," 5/9/15
- "Killing of seven Daash members of Arab nationality and destruction of their camp in Thar Thar," 5/10/15,
- “Violence returns to Diyala .. The escape from the prison was done under the pretext of an “inspection,”” 5/10/15

Naylor, Hugh and Salim, Mustafa, "Prisoners with Islamic State ties escape in eastern Iraq," Washington Post, 5/9/15

NINA, "Daash Blows Up Police Stations, Outer Fence and Cross Of a Church In Mosul," 5/13/15
- "Daash executed (20) of the employees of Badush prison south of Mosul," 5/13/15
- "A pre-emptive operation started by the security forces in Ramadi," 5/10/15

Radio Free Iraq, "08 May 2015," Daily Updates from Anbar, 5/8/15,
- "14 May 2015," Daily Updates from Anbar," 5/14/15,

Rudaw, "Iraqi forces capture three strategic areas in Baiji," 5/13/15,
- "ISIS destroys 200-year-old Ottoman mosque in Mosul," 5/12/15

Saad, Mustafa, "Baghdad Operations announced the killing of two visitors and the wounding of three others in the outcome of the bombing in al-Saadoun," Alsumaria, 5/12/15

Salaheddin, Sinan, "Bombings Kill at Least 8 Outside Iraqi Capital," Baghdad," 5/10/15
- "Suicide attacks on Iraqi Shiite mosques kill 22 worshippers," Associated Press, 5/8/15

Salama, Vivian, "Bombings in Iraqi capital kill at least 15 Shiite pilgrims," Associated Press, 5/12/15

Sarhan, Amre, "30 casualties in Iraqi forces, ISIS seizes Jabbah area in al-Baghdadi District," Iraqi News, 5/15/15

Shafaq News, "5 visitors killed by a car bomb explosion northern Baghdad," 5/10/15

Sotaliraq, "Three dead and 27 wounded as at least nine car bombs blew up west of Ramadi," 5/14/15

Xinhua, "28 killed in bomb attacks, clashes with IS militants in Iraq," 5/10/15