While the swift seizure of Mosul, Tikrit, and Bayji by ISIS threw a lot of people into panic, the situation in Iraq now appears to be settling into a longer, more drawn-out struggle along sectarian and territorial lines. From several reports, many of ISIS’ initial lightning successes were definitely facilitated by Iraqi Army commanders in the north ordering their men to withdraw. Whether by design from inside or not, the majority of the Army in the north appears to have been Sunni, and unwilling to fight for the majority-Shi’a government.
While initial reports were that ISIS had taken Tal Afar, in subsequent days the ISF has effectively fought back, to the point that as of June 21, while it was unclear just how much of the city is controlled by either side, both ISF and ISIS control portions of Tal Afar, and fighting continues. Samarra has seen back-and-forth fighting in the last week, as well, in spite of initial reports that it had been taken.
Bayji, site of the largest oil refinery in Iraq, has apparently traded hands several times over the last week. While ISF reportedly withdrew from the Bayji oil refinery on June 10, by June 18 it was being reported that the Iraqi Counter Terrorism Service was in control of the refinery, when ISIS gunmen, with mortar support, attacked it. Attacks have continued over the following days, with Iraqi air assets conducting air strikes in the vicinity of the refinery, and several infantry and suicide bombing attacks mounted by ISIS. As of last reports, the refinery is still contested.
ISIS has expanded its offensive in western Al Anbar, seizing the border crossing with Syria at Al Qaim, while ISF reinforcements have moved into the town. Rawa and Ana are reported to have been taken by ISIS, though there are conflicting reports as to whether the IA and IP fought, or left their posts. There are also reports that ISIS has taken al Rutba, and now holds all the border crossings in western Al Anbar.
Violence has increased in Baghdad, with several bombings aimed largely at majority Shi’a neighborhoods, especially Sadr City. Sadrist militias are rallying, especially following Grand Ayatollah Ali al Sistani’s call to arms for all Shi’a Iraqis to resist ISIS. In the past, Sistani and al Sadr, who is, at last report, still in Iran, profoundly disagreed on approaches to the US. Sistani favored peaceful relations with the US and other Iraqis, while Sadr’s Jaysh al Mahdi (officially disbanded in 2008, though many of the same personnel were seen gathering just before the US withdrawal) fought both Sunnis and Coalition forces. While Sadr has claimed he is withdrawing from politics, his supporters marched in Baghdad on June 21, and he has publicly withdrawn his support for Prime Minister Maliki.
As the US prepares to send an additional 300 military advisors to Iraq, in addition to the 275 personnel already there, including a 100-man FAST (Fleet Antiterrorism Support Team), and the USS George HW Bush carrier group steams into the Persian Gulf, the fighting appears to be settling in on a fixed front line, that generally falls between majority-Sunni provinces and majority-Shi’a provinces. While the Iraqi Army largely dissolved in the face of ISIS in the opening days, in majority Sunni cities, there are signs that the commanding officers had sectarian and political reasons for not resisting in the north, including reports that former Baathist generals went over to ISIS. The south, beginning with Baghdad, is another matter. ISIS itself does not likely have the manpower to take Baghdad in the face of determined Shi’a resistance. While a cessation of hostilities is unlikely, at best, given ISIS’ fanaticism, a stalemate along the borders of Al Anbar, Ninewah, and Diyala provinces seems more likely by the day.
It must be mentioned, in closing, that reports from a conflict zone such as Iraq are, by necessity, often unreliable. Each side has an agenda, and that can color what information is let out and what claims are made. Reports and rumors often intersect. Much of the specifics of the front lines remain unclear.
Image of Shi’a Turkmen militia courtesy of ABC Australia