ISIS is on the run, but bat­tles re­main

Thou­sands of its fight­ers are holed up in a vast re­gion strad­dling Iraq and Syria, U.S. of­fi­cials say

The Washington Post Sunday - - THE WORLD - BY TAMER EL-GHOBASHY, JOBY WAR­RICK AND MUSTAFA SALIM tamer.el­ghobashy@wash­post.com joby.war­rick@wash­post.com mustafa.salim@wash­post.com War­rick re­ported from Washington.

ir­bil, iraq — Iraqi se­cu­rity forces have freed most of north­ern Iraq from the grip of the Is­lamic State. But U.S. and Iraqi of­fi­cials warn that thou­sands of mil­i­tants re­main in the coun­try and are ready to wage a fe­ro­cious fight in a desert re­gion bor­der­ing Syria.

The bulk of the war against the Is­lamic State was fin­ished when Iraqi se­cu­rity forces re­claimed the cities of Mo­sul and Tal Afar this sum­mer. But the bat­tle loom­ing in western An­bar prov­ince is ex­pected to be one of the most com­plex to date.

The vast re­gion will be dif­fi­cult to sur­round, and clear­ing it will prob­a­bly in­volve co­or­di­na­tion among the U.S.-backed forces and the Syr­ian regime, Rus­sia and Iran. U.S. of­fi­cials also be­lieve that the Is­lamic State’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Bagh­dadi, is hid­ing there.

Iraqi forces re­took Tal Afar in just eight days, but of­fi­cials say that was an anom­aly and not a new rule. Shi­ite mili­tias en­cir­cled the city for eight months while U.S.-led airstrikes pounded weapons fa­cil­i­ties and tar­geted groups of fight­ers and their com­man­ders be­fore the ground op­er­a­tion be­gan late last month.

“While I’d like to say that we would see this else­where in Iraq and Syria, we’re not re­ally plan­ning for that,” said Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend, who un­til last week was the com­man­der of coali­tion forces in Iraq and Syria. “We’re plan­ning for tough fights ahead.”

Those fights also will in­clude the bat­tle for the city of Haw­ija, whose lo­ca­tion in north-cen­tral Iraq has made it an ISIS launch­pad for small but deadly raids in nearby cities.

But the com­ing fight for Haw­ija has been com­pli­cated by a po­lit­i­cal dis­pute. Kirkuk, the prov­ince in which Haw­ija lies, his­tor­i­cally has been claimed by both Kurds and Arabs. In 2014, Kur­dish pesh­merga fight­ers se­cured the city of Kirkuk against the Is­lamic State ad­vance and have re­mained there since then.

Last month, the Kirkuk provin­cial coun­cil voted to par­tic­i­pate in a ref­er­en­dum on Kur­dish in­de­pen­dence planned later this month, rais­ing the pos­si­bil­ity that Kirkuk would become part of a fully au­ton­o­mous Kur­dish na­tion. Iraq’s cen­tral gov­ern­ment, along with the United States, Iran and Tur­key, strongly op­pose the ref­er­en­dum.

Se­cur­ing Haw­ija would go a long way to­ward pre­vent­ing the Is­lamic State from stag­ing at­tacks, said Na­jmaldin Karim, who has served as the gover­nor of Kirkuk but on Thurs­day was voted out by Iraq’s par­lia­ment be­cause of his sup­port for the Kur­dish ref­er­en­dum. He has vowed to stay in his po­si­tion.

“They can do sig­nif­i­cant dam­age to other places from Haw­ija,” he said of the Is­lamic State, adding that wait­ing un­til now to re­take the city was “il­log­i­cal.”

Once home to a ma­jor­ity Sunni pop­u­la­tion of about 100,000, the city has been mostly cleared of civil­ians. Mil­i­tary planes re­cently be­gan drop­ping leaflets promis­ing the es­ti­mated 20,000 still in the city that their lib­er­a­tion is near and ad­vis­ing them to avoid gath­er­ings of Is­lamic State mil­i­tants.

An Amer­i­can coun­tert­er­ror­ism of­fi­cial, who spoke on the con­di­tion of anonymity to dis­cuss clas­si­fied bat­tle­field as­sess­ments, said about 1,000 Is­lamic State fight­ers still in Haw­ija main­tain net­works of Sunni tribal sym­pa­thiz­ers as well as sup­ply lines run­ning from An­bar into Syria.

“Does Tal Afar in­di­cate any­thing that these bat­tles are go­ing to be easy? I don’t think so,” the of­fi­cial said. “There is a lot of fight­ing left to do.”

ISIS con­trolled about one-third of Iraq in 2014, but its ter­ri­tory has shrunk dra­mat­i­cally since Iraq’s mil­i­tary re­grouped un­der U.S. su­per­vi­sion and Ira­nian-backed Shi­ite mili­tias mo­bi­lized to re­claim towns and vil­lages. To­day, the Is­lamic State holds only about 10 per­cent of its self-de­clared caliphate in Iraq.

Haw­ija has been largely en­cir­cled for a year, by Kur­dish pesh­merga fight­ers to the north and Shi­ite mili­tias and reg­u­lar Iraqi army forces from the south. Iraq’s prime min­is­ter, Haider al-Abadi, faces the task of de­cid­ing which force will take the lead — a de­ci­sion likely col­ored by the Kur­dish de­sire to in­clude Kirkuk in their fu­ture state.

“The is­sue of de­lay­ing the Haw­ija bat­tle has been too re­lated to who will do it and who can claim credit for it, while the peo­ple of Haw­ija suf­fer,” Karim said.

Though their forces are near Haw­ija, pesh­merga of­fi­cials say they have not re­ceived any or­ders to pre­pare for the fight.

“We have forces ready for Haw­ija, but so far there are no or­ders, and we don’t know if we will par­tic­i­pate,” said Brig. Gen. Hal­gurd Hik­met, a pesh­merga spokesman. Pesh­merga sol­diers played sec­ondary roles in the fight for Tal Afar and the much longer bat­tle for Mo­sul, se­cur­ing ar­eas around both to pre­vent mil­i­tants from es­cap­ing or stag­ing in­cur­sions into re­claimed lands.

Townsend said one of the keys to the rapid suc­cess in Tal Afar was that sev­eral Iraqi mil­i­tary branches at­tacked from five fronts, quickly col­laps­ing the Is­lamic State’s lines of de­fense and forc­ing the mil­i­tants into a scat­tered re­sis­tance.

Dur­ing the halt­ing three-year cam­paign to clear Iraq of the Is­lamic State, Abadi has opted to re­take ma­jor cities one at a time, giv­ing a mil­i­tary that col­lapsed in the face of the Is­lamic State on­slaught in 2014 time to re­build.

A se­nior Iraqi coun­tert­er­ror­ism ser­vice of­fi­cer, who spoke on the con­di­tion of anonymity to dis­cuss sen­si­tive mil­i­tary plan­ning, said some com­man­ders are urg­ing Abadi to launch Haw­ija in tan­dem with the ef­fort to re­take the An­bar towns of Qaim, Ana and Rawa — a chain of Sunni en­claves in the Euphrates River Val­ley.

It is largely seen as the Is­lamic State’s last stand in both coun­tries.

A spokesman for Iraq’s mil­i­tary de­clined to dis­cuss force com­po­si­tion for Haw­ija but said there are enough troops to stage the bat­tle for the city and for An­bar con­cur­rently.

That fight took on new ur­gency when the Le­banese Hezbol­lah move­ment an­nounced a deal last week to move about 300 Is­lamic State fight­ers and their fam­i­lies from western Syria to the Is­lamic State-con­trolled town of Buka­mal on Iraq’s bor­der.

Abadi and U.S. of­fi­cials re­coiled at the deal, say­ing it re­in­forced the Is­lamic State’s pres­ence in the Syr­ian prov­ince of Deir al-Zour and un­der­mines Iraq’s se­cu­rity. The United States launched airstrikes to halt the ad­vance of a col­umn of buses to Buka­mal by cra­ter­ing roads and a small bridge.

Last week, Iraqi of­fi­cials from An­bar and Syr­ian ac­tivists said part of the con­voy had made it over the bor­der to the Iraqi towns in the Euphrates River Val­ley, con­firm­ing the worst fears of Iraq’s lead­er­ship and its U.S. mil­i­tary al­lies.

“We are con­sid­er­ing chang­ing the plans for western An­bar based on these devel­op­ments,” said Saeed al-Jayashi, a gov­ern­ment ad­viser to the Iraqi joint oper­a­tions com­mand.

On Mon­day, ar­mored units from Iraq’s army be­gan to de­ploy to mil­i­tary bases in An­bar.

Buka­mal is just across the bor­der with Qaim, and se­nior Is­lamic State lead­ers are be­lieved to be in both towns. Townsend said he be­lieves that Is­lamic State leader Bagh­dadi is mov­ing be­tween hide­outs in the Euphrates val­ley, con­tra­dict­ing Rus­sian claims that he is prob­a­bly dead.

The bat­tle on the Iraqi side of the bor­der is also likely to be com­pli­cated by the con­ver­gence of in­ter­ests in the area. Forces that are part of a Syr­ian-Ira­nian-Rus­sian al­liance have be­gun ad­vanc­ing on Deir al-Zour prov­ince and could push Is­lamic State mil­i­tants into Iraq. The close-quar­ter fight­ing also will re­quire the United States and Rus­sia to en­sure that the forces they are back­ing don’t come into con­flict.

Ac­cord­ing to a Pen­tagon assess­ment, be­tween 5,000 and 10,000 mil­i­tants are in the area.

U.S.-backed Syr­ian forces an­nounced their of­fen­sive in the oil­rich prov­ince Sept. 9, height­en­ing fears of clashes among forces sup­ported by coun­tries with di­ver­gent views over its fu­ture.

The close-quar­ter fight­ing also will re­quire the United States and Rus­sia to en­sure that the forces they are back­ing don’t come into con­flict.

“I’m rea­son­ably con­fi­dent that we’ll be able to work through this,” Townsend said, adding that there have al­ready been con­ver­sa­tions with the Rus­sians to de­lin­eate sec­tors for the com­ing bat­tle. “Ev­ery­one that’s con­verg­ing down there is try­ing to de­feat ISIS as a first pri­or­ity, and we’ll use that to our ad­van­tage to work through it.”

“Does Tal Afar in­di­cate any­thing that these bat­tles are go­ing to be easy? I don’t think so. There is a lot of fight­ing left to do.” U.S. coun­tert­er­ror­ism of­fi­cial

REUTERS

Pop­u­lar Mo­bi­liza­tion Forces mem­bers clash last month with Is­lamic State mil­i­tants in Tal Afar, which has been re­claimed by Iraqi forces.

Source: IHS Jane’s Con­flict Mon­i­tor as of Aug. 28 THE WASHINGTON POST

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