Over the last couple of weeks, the forces fighting the extremist group known as the Islamic State in Iraq have achieved military success in places where they have recently been unable to. The Iraqi military and their allies in the volunteer Shiite Muslim militias managed to push the Islamic State, or IS, out of the town of Baiji in Salahaddin province in just two days – they haven't been able to do this in six months. The same kinds of fighting forces also managed to advance closer to the centre of the IS-held city of Ramadi in Anbar province, something they haven't been able to do in around five months.
Local analysts are saying that this newfound success has more than a little to do with the new intelligence-sharing coalition that includes Russia, Syria, Iran and Iraq as well as the competitive tension that seems to be rising between Iraq's US allies and their newfound Russian friends. But how exactly has this helped the fight against the IS group in Iraq? And why?
The Fight for Baiji
On October 13, the Iraqi army together with Iraq's often controversial volunteer Shiite Muslim militias – including the League of the Righteous, the Badr movement, Hezbollah in Iraq and the Najbaa brigades – began a major operation to retake the Baiji district, which also happens to be the base of the country's largest oil refinery. By the second day they had been successful in comparison with similar past attempts, having retaken Baiji as well as several other surrounding towns and regained control of the oil refinery. Reports from the front indicate that many anti-IS fighters were killed, often by roadside bombs, improvised explosive devices and booby traps set by the IS group as they made their way out of town toward Mosul, the northern city considered IS' capital in Iraq.
For the first time ever a special forces unit, belonging to the Shiite militias, took part in fighting.
And it is also true that the oil refinery has been badly damaged after months of fighting around it. However the fact that there is one less obstacle on the road toward Mosul is also seen by many in Iraq as a victory.
“It was a very fast operation and it took the IS fighters by surprise,” explained Abu Jafaar al-Saadi, one of the field commanders with a Shiite volunteer militia. “Because of this we were able to control hundreds of kilometres of terrain within just a few hours.”
Al-Saadi also told NIQASH that for the first time ever a special forces unit, belonging to the Shiite militias, took part in the battle. Called the Anger Division, it is similar to the Iraqi army's special forces, anti-terrorism unit known as the Golden Division, he noted.
“The new special operations force is made up of hundreds of fighters who all underwent extremely tough training by Iranian officers, so that they would be prepared to carry out the most difficult missions and be able to make air drops inside IS-controlled territory,” al-Saadi explained. “They participated in the fighting for the first time in Baiji.”
At the same time, al-Saadi said, the militias had received a new longer-range rocket system from Iran and this was used against the IS group for the first time during the fighting in Baiji. Al-Saadi refused to tell NIQASH the name of the kind of missile system, saying it was sensitive information.
“The IS fighters are clever and they know what weapons we have and the distances we can fire them. So most of the time they keep a decent distance between themselves and our troops and weapons. However we were able to surprise them with this new weapon and shell them heavily. After that the militias were able to advance without any real resistance from the IS fighters.”
Another reason for the success in Salahaddin were newly formed alliances with the local Sunni Muslim tribes there. Unlike the Sunni tribes of the Anbar province which unilaterally reject the idea, some of the Sunni tribes in this area don't have any qualms about working together with either the Shiite Muslim militias or their Iranian advisers.
A special deal was done that allowed Shiite militias to take care of Baiji, while US-backed forces went to work in Anbar.
The leaders of some of the Shiite Muslim militias – apparently including Hadi al-Ameri of the Badr movement and Abu Mahdi al-Mohandes of Hezbollah in Iraq - have made attempts to form alliances with a number of tribes in Salahaddin. Some of these have been successful with members of the al-Jibour, Albu Nasr, al-Azza and al-Juhaishat tribes among others. A force that numbered around 3,000 was formed from these cooperative tribes. However these groups were not given any front line, fighting duties mainly because the Shiite militia commanders still worry that they might harbour members of the IS group. A series of meetings were held to try and end doubts about this but the doubts do still exist. This is why the main task of the Salahaddin tribal force was to defend the towns and cities where the IS group had been pushed out, ensuring that the extremists were unable to return. Militia leaders apparently felt that, after the situation in Tikrit in April where Shiite militias members carried out criminal acts of revenge, it was better for their men not to have anything to do with holding the former IS-controlled territories.
The Fight in Anbar Province
The other success for anti-IS forces happened in Ramadi, one of the larger cities in Anbar province, an area mostly populated by Sunni Muslims. Victory came thanks to cooperation between the Iraqi army's special forces unit, the Golden Division, local Sunni fighters from Anbar's tribes and increased support from the US.
From the beginning of September, the US has been increasing aid in Anbar, bringing in more advisers, airplanes, helicopters and Marines to the area. This has angered some of the Shiite Muslim volunteer militias, who were refusing to work with the US.
“But there was a deal done that convinced the Shiite militias to pull out of Ramadi in order to give Sunni tribal fighters a chance to liberate their own cities,” a source in the Iraqi government told NIQASH on condition of anonymity because they were not authorised to speak on the subject. “In return for doing this, the Shiite militias could have full control over the fight [for Baiji] in Salahaddin.”
This meant that the US had tacit permission to arm the tribal fighters and these groups began to fight alongside the Iraqi army in Ramadi.
“Our weapons are still not that great,” Fadel al-Fahdawi, who leads a division of several hundred tribal fighters south of Ramadi, told NIQASH. “But at least now we have some and we are able to help the Iraqi forces to prevent the IS group from returning. One of the crucial factors in recent successes was the change in the US role. US aircraft increased the number of air raids and covered Iraqi troops from the air. So [anti-IS] forces were able to advance without fear,” he said.
Some have said victories in Anbar and Salahaddin were only possible because of the US-Russian tensions.
Right now a number of areas in central Ramadi are still under IS control and improvised explosive devices planted on roads are halting the Iraqi army's advance; it is certain that the IS group has also prepared booby trapped cars.
A New Cold War-Style Contest?
Away from the realities of the battlefield, how did the newly minted Russian intervention in the region impact these fights: Did the Russians have anything to do with these success stories?
Ever since the four-way intelligence alliance between Iraq, Iran, Syria and Russia was announced, Iraq has been in a tricky diplomatic position. The US-led coalition that is helping the Iraqi government against the IS group doesn't want to cooperate with the Russian effort in Iraq, even though they have come to some agreements within Syria. This is even though senior Iraqi officials have complained more than once that US efforts are not enough to defeat the IS group in their country.
But it feels as though now US efforts are ramping up so that the Iraqis have no possible excuse to ask the Russians for more help. For example, according to al-Fahdawi in Anbar, the number of US-led air strikes by plane or helicopter have been rising.
Some might even say that the victories in Anbar and Salahaddin were only possible because of the increased competition between the US and Russia in Iraq. “The Iraqi government is taking an unclear position and certainly the tensions between Moscow and Washington are not straightforward either,” says Ziad Ahmad, a local political analyst. “But it seems clear that these tensions must have something to do with recent victories. What the Iraqi government must do now is take a very diplomatic position; it can always tell the US it may have to resort to Russian aid, but it must do this without angering the Americans too much.”