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Sunday, August 30, 2015

Block by block, Iraqi forces begin to dislodge ISIS from the outskirts of Ramadi.

Link: ISIS kills two Iraqi generals in separate attacks on the same day outside Ramadi.

Everyday brings more news from Iraq regarding both the military situation in Anbar Province, and political developments generated by the reforms of Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi.  The Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) that are presently engaging ISIS in Ramadi, consist of Iraqi Army units, specialized police, and members of various Sunni militias, and they are pressuring ISIS forces from both the east and the west.  For all practical purposes, ISIS is hemmed in, and the regular use by ISIS of SVBIEDs is an indication that the ISF has penetrated ISIS' exterior line of defense.  In a somewhat urban setting like the outlying neighborhoods of Ramadi, which consist of some low-level residences and businesses, and also four and five story structures, ISIS will utilize snipers and ambushes at every opportunity.  At this stage, ISIS is both unwilling and unable to engage the ISF in a conventional battle; the use of SVBIEDs and VBIEDs are ISIS' usual modus operandi, because they do not have the numbers or the equipment (tanks, armored personnel carriers, mobile artillery, etc.) to confront the enemy in a conventional fashion.  Besides, ISIS believes civilian casualties are worth more than military deaths on the battlefield.  Civilian deaths terrorize the population, making it difficult for the government to administer.  People try to flee the area, which clogs up the transportation network and creates more opportunities for SVBIEDs with greater casualties.  Civilian casualties can also lead to pressure on the government to compromise (see Ukraine).  All in all, ISIS will always want to encourage destabilization in areas occupied by its enemies; destabilization distracts the enemy from what should be the primary goal: the destruction of ISIS.  The ISF appears to have played this one properly from the beginning of the offensive in July.  Almost as soon as the offensive to retake Anbar was announced, ISIS began an SVBIED campaign in Diyala Province, later to extend to Salad ad-Din.  As further means of distraction, ISIS stepped up efforts to seize Haditha, and also turned the heat up on Baiji.  The Provincial Administrations began screaming for military help, demanding that the ISF return provincial soldiers who were part of the Anbar Offensive (playing into ISIS' hands).  Credit goes to the Iraqi government and the military High Command for not budging, and staying on course regarding the long-term strategic goals of the offensive.

Now that the battle for Ramadi has started to focus on neighborhoods and other urban areas, including industrial sites, universities, and hospitals, ISIS will continue to make use of SVBIEDs, but the ISF will be forced to go building to building, block to block, all the while being harassed by snipers.  The ISF has gone down this road before, clearing out Ramadi once before, but it appears that ISIS has booby-trapped and mined everything short of the cockroaches.  This is where the Army bomb-squads and the specially trained police units will prove most valuable.  With Ramadi being squeezed on all sides, it is unlikely that ISIS will be able to resupply or reinforce its forces.  The question remains, how long will the ISIS fighters hold out?  Are they as determined as the last bunch were, to die firing an AK-47?  The ISF will certainly accommodate, but it would be great to see the remaining defenders surrender en masse.  It would send a message to all who fight for ISIS, that it isn't necessary to give up your life for the cause.  Inevitably, if fewer ISIS fight to the death, then fewer Iraqi soldiers die as well.

The news from Fallujah has been sparse as of late.  The Shi'a militias/Popular Mobilization Units (PMUs) that have been tightening the noose on ISIS in Fallujah, have been not surprisingly less-accessible to the press.  But ISIS has its hands full in Fallujah as well; will Fallujah fall before Ramadi?  If ISIS in both towns decides to fight to the bitter end, the clean-up operation will take some time.  You can bet that the ISF will not rest on its laurels, as Haditha is next in line for a house-cleaning.  This last week, ISF units in Haditha actually took to the offensive, clearing out ISIS from the outlying sub-district of Baghdadi.  Again, the allied air support has been on-target and very welcome in the last month, as the current situation appears to favor the ISF and its allies.  But we have been lulled into a false sense of optimism before.  ISIS can rebound from defeats like no military organization we have seen.  In fact, its very construction allows it to recover quickly from setbacks, like an animal that has its foot caught in a trap.  ISIS will chew off the foot, and regrow it later on its own schedule.  ISIS occupied Ramadi once before, only to lose it, and re-occupy it again.  One of the keys to ISIS success is its mobility and the apparent self-sufficiency of its units.  ISIS has a presence in every Iraqi Province, even though it does not have a guaranteed method of resupplying and reinforcing those units.  It is up to the units, which are purposely small, to equip themselves from the enemy, or to put themselves into position to be re-equipped.  What makes ISIS so dangerous is its ability to adapt, because we have seen ISIS fight conventional battles in Syria and in northern Iraq.  At different times in 2013 and 2014, ISIS captured all sorts of heavy military equipment from the Iraqi Army.  Previously, ISIS had captured a Syrian Air Force Base, with Migs sitting on the runway, fueled-up and ready to go.  We don't know what ISIS has done with all of the military booty that it has collected, although a good deal has been destroyed from coalition air attacks.  At the end of the day, ISIS is a very dangerous enemy; it can sneak up on you in the desert and it can give you hell fighting street-to-street.  We are very encouraged by the recent disciplined and united approach that the ISF and the PMUs are presenting as they methodically pound away at ISIS positions.

The Iraqi Parliament Council of Representatives have approved Speaker Salim al-Juburi's reforms, which were introduced on 11 August alongside Prime Minister Abadi's reform package.  On August 27, the Council of Representatives passed the Political Parties Law, which bans political parties from receiving foreign funding and maintaining paramilitary wings.  No doubt the later of the restrictions will be met with strong opposition by a number of the Shi'a parties, who are inseparable from particular militias.  The reform wave has also attempted to sweep up the Iraqi judiciary, but the head of the Supreme Judicial Council, Mehdat al-Mahmoud, an ally of former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, vigorously defended its integrity.  Mahmoud has some clout, and he will certainly attempt to keep some level of influence in government for Maliki and his supporters.  Whether or not he will be able to keep the Iraqi Judiciary reform-free is another question altogether.

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