The Iraq Report: IS loses yet another Iraqi city
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The Islamic State group has this week suffered one of its most painful setbacks, as Iraqi forces heavily backed by Shia militias forced them to withdraw from the northern Iraqi city of Tal Afar. While the loss of other cities were greater strategic losses, IS’ rapid abandonment of Tal Afar suggests its strength may well have been sapped in battles earlier this year, and may also go some way to explain why IS has relied on more conventional insurgent attacks.
Meanwhile, the date for the Kurdish independence referendum is looming, and conflicting messages have been issued by not only the Kurdistan Regional Government, but also other stakeholders and regional powerbrokers such as Turkey. While the KRG’s allies in Ankara have said they do not expect the referendum to go ahead, it appears the KRG’s leadership has other ideas.
IS ousted from Tal Afar
In one of the shortest battles for IS-held territory since the campaign against the extremist group began in earnest in 2014, the Iraqi military announced on Sunday that it had wrested control of the northern Iraqi city from IS, with the government formally declaring victory on Monday.
After eight days of fighting, the Iraqi military – extensively supported by Shia militants in the Popular Mobilisation Forces – managed to take quick control of the town centre, forcing remaining IS fighters to withdraw 15 kilometres north to Ayadiya in a last-ditch attempt to stave off destruction. Tal Afar, lying some 60 kilometres east of recently recaptured Mosul, was initially thought to house 2,000 IS militants, or about a third of the strength IS fielded in Mosul.
|Members of the Iran-backed PMF shia militia celebrate taking an Islamic State group position in Tal Afar [AFP]
In comparison with Mosul, which took the better part of nine months to recapture from IS militants and reportedly cost the Iraqi security forces thousands of lives – not counting the deaths of Shia militants – Tal Afar was a relative blitzkrieg. Before the land operation began two weeks ago on Sunday, Tal Afar had been under siege for almost an entire year. It was also subjected to continuous airstrikes and heavy artillery bombardment throughout most of the time that Mosul was being fought over. It was one of the war’s longest “softening operations” ahead of a major assault against IS, and led to extensive destruction in the town.
It would also appear that IS fighters did not number anywhere close to the 2,000 militants claimed by Baghdad. According to after-action reports and statements issued by counter-terrorism units, the Iraqi military had slain some 225 IS militants, while the Joint Operations Command revised that figure upwards to 302. It is therefore becoming increasingly clear that IS did not fight with anywhere near the ferocity that they summoned for the Mosul battle, and had likely already conducted an operational withdrawal, ceding ground to the Iraqi military.
This is likely due to IS having focused much of its military might in the fight for Mosul, and IS may well be conserving its manpower in order to conduct more conventional insurgent attacks – car bombs, suicide attacks etc - that are cheaper to conduct, and cost less in terms of human resources too.
IS terror strikes heart of Baghdad
As IS appears to be modifying its strategy in order to conserve its strength and prolong its ability to generate striking power, the militants have managed to conduct several high-profile attacks, including bombings in the capital, Baghdad.
On the day the Iraqi military declared victory in Tal Afar, suspected IS militants rigged two car bombs to detonate simultaneously in different districts of Baghdad. The first tore through the Abu Dsheer neighbourhood, killing at least four and wounding seven others, while the second bombing rocked southern Baghdad, killing five and injuring a further seven.
A day later, on Monday morning, another IS car bomb ripped into the busy Jamila market in Baghdad’s eastern Sadr City, killing at least nine people and wounding 25 others. Plumes of black smoke could be seen over the district’s skyline, with shattered glass, twisted metal and market goods strewn across the street.
Although IS has not claimed responsibility for these attacks, they are the most likely suspects, according to Iraqi security officials. The suspected IS attacks come at a time when the Iraqi government had promised to enact an “Eid Plan”, a security plan designed to reduce casualties in the run-up to the Eid ul-Adha celebrations due on Friday. The attackers could be attempting to send the message that Baghdad will not be vulnerable, no matter what plans the authorities enact.
|Iraqi forces move on from Tal Afar towards the last remaining fronts in the war against the Islamic State group [AFP]
Kurdish independence referendum looms
In a move that is likely to leave egg on the faces of both the US and Turkish administrations, KRG President Massoud Barzani said last Thursday that the long-anticipated Kurdish independence referendum would continue to go ahead on 25 September despite lobbying by the two powers. Barzani’s position is likely to embarrass both Washington and Ankara, both formally KRG allies.
According to think tank director Hemin Mirkhan, Barzani had told a gathering of Kurdish academics that he had lost faith in the federal government and stated there was no trust between Erbil and Baghdad. This was confirmed to The New Arab by a senior KRG adviser, who said that the vote would continue as normal.
Hot on the heels of Barzani’s decision to forge ahead, Kirkuk’s provincial council passed a motion to join in the plebiscite, paving the way for one of Iraq’s most oil-rich provinces to join other KRG-controlled provinces in the highly anticipated “yes” vote to create an independent Kurdistan. The council’s vote was boycotted by Arab and Turkmen councillors, angry their ethnic rights may be curtailed if Kirkuk is absorbed into any future Kurdish state. Kirkuk is hotly contested between the Kurds, Turkmen and Arabs.
While the Iraqi provinces of Dohuk, Erbil and Sulaimaniyah are under the authority of the KRG, Kirkuk is technically under Baghdad’s rule. However, and after IS’ lightning advance in 2014, the Iraqi military abandoned Kirkuk which allowed the Kurdish Peshmerga to fill the vacuum and capture the territory for the KRG after routing IS with extensive US assistance.
This has concerned Washington as it has led to fears that Iraq may well be heading towards disintegration, while Ankara claims to champion the rights of Iraq’s Turkmen minority, with whom they share ties of kinship and shared culture. Turkey reacted angrily to the announcement on Tuesday, saying that including Kirkuk in the vote was “a new episode in a drama of errors”.
However, Turkey has often made announcements over which it later made rapid about-turns. Before the battle for Tal Afar – a Turkmen majority town – Ankara warned that it would not allow the PMF to be involved in the fighting. However, from when the fight began and until it ended formally on Monday, Turkey had nothing to say - despite the heavy PMF presence.
Considering Turkey benefits extensively through trade, construction and security arrangements with the KRG, there are suspicions that Ankara could eventually come to an agreement with Erbil that will secure its own interests, while subverting any claims to Kurdish independence in Turkey by groups such as the Kurdistan Workers’ Party.
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