Battles Across Iraq Call Into Question U.S. Strategy

Trench warfare on northern front little changed since 2014 (Updated)

A Kurdish Peshmerga fighter near the town of Kirkuk / AP
May 16, 2016

Political and ethnic rivalries in Iraq are threatening the ongoing campaign to eject the Islamic State from the northern and western portions of the war-torn country.

A large battle for the majority-Christian village of Tel Asqaf north of Mosul began at dawn on May 3, as more that 100 ISIS fighters launched a surprise attack that pushed Peshmerga and militia fighters out of the town and claimed the life of Navy SEAL Charles Keating IV, according to Kurdish media sources.

The terrorist fighters attacked from three or more directions using more than 10 car bombs and one bulldozer to break through defensive barriers around the village, according to Nineveh News. Rudaw, a Kurdish media site, claimed more than 400 ISIS fighters participated in the attack, including 50 wearing suicide vests.

For the first time since its formation in 2014, the Assyrian Christian fighters known as the Nineveh Plains Defense Force sent approximately 100 fighters into a major battle with ISIS and fought alongside hundreds of Peshmerga to drive ISIS out of the village, according to Jeff Gardner, chief of operations for the Restore Nineveh Now Foundation.

The defense force arrived in Tel Asqaf at 10:00 am., trading fire with ISIS for hours until its fighters ran low on ammunition. U.S. Army Apache helicopters began to attack the ISIS forces late in the morning and continued to hit the jihadists through May 4, causing most of ISIS’s casualties during the battle, Gardner told the Washington Free Beacon.

Peshmerga forces reported 10 dead and as many as 150 ISIS fighters dead, according to Rudaw. Athra Kado, a spokesman for the defense force, said there were 73 ISIS dead left on the field and 3 defense force fighters wounded.

On the second day of the Tel Asqaf battle, ISIS set two oil wells on fire in the Kirkuk oil field 70 miles south of Erbil. The fires are expected to burn for three weeks, according to the Institute for the Study of War. Security forces removed improvised explosive devices from two other wells without incident.

ISIS attacks during the first two weeks of May appear to be exploiting the sectarian divide.

Iraqi Army forces are tied down in combat and terrorist attacks throughout the desert region of Western Iraq where Sunni Arabs are the majority. On May 12, near the town of Albu Aitha, north of the provincial capital of Ramadi, Iraqi forces pushed back a massive ISIS attack, killing 158 terrorists, 19 suicide bombers, and exploding 18 vehicle bombs, 2 bulldozer bombs, 3 machine-gun mounted vehicles and 20 Improvised explosive devices (IEDs), according to Daesh Daily, a digest of multiple Iraqi news sources. However, the battle took the lives of 33 Iraqi Army soldiers.

Daesh Daily made this comment of the action: "This is no great victory for Iraqi forces. Albu Aitha was already cleared a few months ago and the Iraqi military failed to keep Daesh out. 33 men died largely because of leadership failures."

ISIS unleashed a wave of suicide bombings aimed at Shia pilgrims in Baghdad and towns to its north from May 2 to 11, according to reports from the institute.

The suicide bombing attacks have taken advantage of political upheaval in the Iraqi central government. Thousands of activists supporting Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr have effectively halted government operations since April 30, when they stormed Parliament and ministry buildings in the city to demand that Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi remove dozens of officials tied to corruption. The Kurdish delegation to Iraq’s parliament reacted to the protests by returning to Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, prompting Kurdish leader Masoud Barzani to implore them to return to Baghdad.

South of Kirkuk, a tenuous peace is in effect in the city of Tuz Khurmatu after a battle erupted between Peshmerga and a Shia militia in late April that left 40 Shia and six Peshmerga fighters dead. The two forces, allies against ISIS, have agreed to a joint policing of the city, Rudaw reports.

The ISIS attack in Tel Asqaf that forced the Peshmerga garrison to retreat from the village demonstrated that ISIS is still capable of complex attacks against the local armies allied with Baghdad, despite having no air power.

The fighting between Peshmerga and Shia militia south of Kirkuk was symptomatic of the devolution of Iraqi security to militias and defense forces not under Baghdad’s full control. The central government has a regular army, the Iraqi Security Forces, but counts on the support of between 30,000 and 100,000 fighters from Shia militias, known as Popular Mobilization Forces. Many of the militias are armed by Iran and led by Iranian operatives, according to Michael Pregent, a former career military intelligence officer.

Since the pullout of all U.S forces from Iraq in 2011, Shia governing officials purged Iraqi armed forces of thousands of Sunni career soldiers, leaving the Iraqi Army in the hands of Shia units and myriad Shia militias supporting the Bagdad government, according to Pregent.

The 14,000 Iraqi soldiers operating near the Makmour front are not up to the task of retaking Mosul, the Sunni Arab stronghold of Iraq, according to Pregent. The 160,000-man Peshmerga cannot retake Mosul on its own. That mission can only be achieved by an army of Sunni fighters that has yet to be recruited, according to Peshmerga Brig. Gen. Muhsin Rashed. "If the Shia forces enter the battle for Mosul, it’s going to go very badly," Muhsin told the Free Beacon.

Analyst Byron Horatio wrote in Nineveh News that a breakthrough is not likely for either side in the years-long conflict.

"For all the unquestionable bravery of the thousands of Kurdish soldiers who have perished in combat with ISIS, the fact remains that the frontlines are largely unchanged since the fall of 2014," Horatio wrote. "Both the Kurds and ISIS remain heavily dug-in outside of Mosul and Kirkuk, with the fighting reduced to a kind of war of attrition along hundreds of miles of trenches."

Update, 10:00 A.M.: This post has been updated with further information about fighting in Iraq near the town of Albu Aitha, and to correct the number of NPU fighters at Tel Asqaf. Sources report there were approximately 100 NPU fighters engaged in the battle, not 200.

Published under: Iraq , ISIS