How ISIS Regained Its Momentum in Iraq
Policy + Politics

How ISIS Regained Its Momentum in Iraq

© Ari Jalal / Reuters

As Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi was meeting President Obama and his cabinet in Washington, D.C. this week to ask for more U.S. military aid, ISIS was regaining its momentum and recapturing territory in Iraq. The group took control of Iraq's largest oil refinery for a day and is threatening to take the city of Ramadi to the west of Baghdad.

Despite the Pentagon announcement on Tuesday that ISIS has lost a quarter of its controlled territories in Iraq since the beginning of the U.S.-led air campaign in August 2014, the facts on the ground have changed dramatically in favor of ISIS in recent days, threatening all the efforts of the U.S. and its allies over the course of eight months. 

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Since last year, ISIS has controlled 85 percent of Anbar, the largest province in Iraq, including parts of its capital, Ramadi, as well as the entire city of Fallujah and many other cities and towns. Iraqi government forces and Sunni tribal allies had briefly succeeded in pushing ISIS back from two areas in Ramadi, but ISIS responded with massive counterattacks. By Wednesday, ISIS controlled several new neighborhoods in the city and attacked the governor's office. The city residents again started fleeing their homes, fearing ISIS reprisals. 

To the north, ISIS attacked the Beiji refinery, infiltrating the facility and killing the commander of the unit protecting it. Iraqi government forces and their Shiite and Sunni allies managed to retake most what was lost of the refinery the following day, but the fighting there is still going on. In Ramadi, the defenders are desperately sparing no effort to prevent the fall of the city.

Whether or not they are successful, it is clear that ISIS had rebounded from a significant defeat in Tikrit a few weeks ago. That turn has been helped by several factors: 

One of the main factors was that ISIS activated sleeper cells inside Ramadi, which took the city’s defenders by surprise. The sleeper cells were a major part of ISIS’s summer offensive in 2014. But they hadn’t been used heavily for months. “We were surprised by the emergence of the sleeper cells with their guns in Albu Farraj. It has led to a major confusion,” Adhal al-Fahdawi, a member of the Anbar provincial council, said, referring to a neighborhood in Ramadi. 

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A tactical mistake by the Iraqi government and provincial officials allowed ISIS to spring that surprise. The officials announced that the final battle to liberate Anbar had started before the necessary forces were assembled. This allowed ISIS to activate its sleeper cells in Ramadi and to send hundreds of additional fighters across the desert to join the fight. 

Another reason behind ISIS’s resurgence was the U.S. military’s alleged advice to the defenders of Beiji refinery to disengage with the ISIS attacking forces so that the U.S. could bomb them. Once that happened, ISIS captured most of the refinery. “ISIS controlled 80 percent of Beiji refinery because of a series of suicide attacks, the protecting unit's shortage of munitions and the withdrawal of the terrorism combating force after advice from the U.S. advisors to disengage with ISIS, so the coalition air force can bomb them,” said Hisham al-Hashim, the analyst at the Iraqi National Security Advisor's office.

If the Iraqi forces and their allies have made tactical missteps, ISIS has found some maneuvers that have worked. It has used small attacks to draw government forces away from areas where it wants to strike harder. For example, two major attacks against the city of Dujail, to the north of Baghdad, and several new bombings in Baghdad were conducted while the main ISIS attacks were happening at Beiji and Ramadi.

ISIS has made use of underground tunnels, either to set off massive explosions or as hideouts for fighters and passageways for its fighters to reposition themselves and take the government forces and their allies by surprise. These tunnels could house dozens of fighters, with some food and holes to allow air in. ISIS has also made heavy use of armored car bombs to break through Iraqi government fortified positions. Those moving bombs are hard to stop with just infantry soldiers’ fire and have helped ISIS retake territory it had lost.

ISIS has also succeeded by focusing on killing the field commanders of the forces it is fighting, which creates a state of chaos among them. Also, while ISIS has absolute unity of command — a vital factor in its victories — its foes never have that same level of unity. The Iraqi government, the Iranian backed Shiite militias, the U.S.-led alliance, the Sunni tribes and the Kurds were never on the same page. 

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Those divisions have caused complications, like the split resulting from the U.S.-Iranian competition for influence in Iraq. In both Beiji and Ramadi, it was reported that the Iranian backed Shiite militias withdrew suddenly after Sunnis and the U.S. protested about their participation, as the militias were accused of human rights abuses, looting and burning. “What happened in Beiji was the result of the unfair campaign against the popular units (the Shiite militias),” Hadi al-Ameri, the leader of the Badr organization, one of the largest Shiite militias in Iraq, was quoted as saying on Alsumaria. In both Beiji and Ramadi, the militias are being urged to rejoin the fight.

It is necessary to remember that while ISIS captured major cities in a few days, retaking these cities always takes several months. The recent setbacks may in the end be temporary, but they show that the fight against ISIS will be long and drawn out.

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