Iraq security forces pick their battles

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[Times Editor’s note: As this issue for June 15, 2014, was being put to bed, CNN was reporting that the jihadist rebel forces of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), also called the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), had not let up on their push toward Baghdad.  CNN said  Sunni tribal leaders have lined up in support of radical Islamists from the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, making their push toward Baghdad easier, a Saudi intelligence official told CNN’s Nic Robertson. CNN also gave the breakingnews that Iran had announced it’s willingness to come to the aid of the Iraqi government if asked.]

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Iraqi security forces may have blunted the recent militant offensive, but the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant continues to wage its insurgency undaunted. In fact, the group and its allies, which include the Naqshbandi Army, Jamaat Ansar al-Islam and Jaish al-Muhajireen, are fanning out and striking weakly held government positions. To the northeast of Baghdad in Diyala province, the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant has taken the towns of Jalula and As Sadiyah, as well as a number of nearby villages around the Himreen Mountains. The group is expected to converge next on Muqdadiyah, which Iraqi security forces currently hold.

But the militants have a serious problem: As good as they may be at taking towns, they may not be able to hold them. Iraqi security forces are simply better armed, particularly with heavy weapons such as armored vehicles, artillery and air support, and as such are able to push militants back from their positions. However, the Iraqi military does not have enough capable and dependable units to push back the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant along its entire front. The group is highly mobile and widely dispersed, forcing the army to make strategic decisions over which locations it should clear and which locations are important enough to deploy soldiers to hold. Baghdad, as well as areas with critical energy infrastructure, will receive the most immediate attention.

One way the Iraqi army can overcome its numerical deficiencies is by coordinating its efforts with the Shiite militias currently mobilized under what appears to be the aid and advice of the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ Quds Force. But this has its drawbacks. Though the Shiite militias and the Quds Force will bring in some much-needed manpower, they will validate Sunni concerns that the conflict is a sectarian one, perhaps driving them to unite against the Shiite government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

In the meantime, government forces are withdrawing from Anbar province to face the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant in the north. Jabhat al-Nusra, the official al Qaeda faction in Syria, has taken advantage of the situation by reportedly mounting cross-border raids from Syria, capturing Iraqi border checkpoints and their associated equipment and vehicles. With the Syrian army already largely withdrawn from the Iraqi border and the Iraqi army otherwise preoccupied, the Syria-Iraq border effectively exists in name only.

In northern Iraq, peshmerga forces must be watched closely; the Kurds can play a decisive role in the ongoing conflict. However, any peshmerga moves outside of Kirkuk and in Ninawa province will be politically sensitive and will affect the balance with the central government. In any case, it is unclear whether al-Maliki is even willing to coordinate with the Kurdistan Regional Government.

The Kurds are going to lock down Kirkuk and keep a buffer for the Kurdistan Regional Government, but they are not going to engage the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant deep in Sunni territory. They cannot extend themselves too far, and they are fine with seeing al-Maliki on the defensive so long as they can insulate the Kurdish zone. The peshmerga is in control of most of the contested areas, including most of Kirkuk governorate and its three oil formations, as well as territory north and east of Mosul, Tal Afar, Taza and Tuz Khurmatu. It is in Arbil’s interest to focus on holding these territories. The Kurds know they will eventually face resistance from the militants in these contested areas, and so they are already preparing for it.

Publishing by The Manila Times of this analysis is with express permission of STRATFOR.

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