News out of Iraq has been sparse since ISIS seized Ramadi and Fallujah in January. Even Middle Eastern news sources largely aren’t covering the renewed violence; Al Akhbar English has nothing on the continuing fighting in Iraq. It hasn’t abated, however. It is estimated that over 700 people were killed in fighting in Iraq in February, and not all the violence has been limited to Fallujah and Ramadi and their environs.
ISIS has been striking Iraqi security forces and civilians in Fallujah, Ramadi, Mosul, Kirkuk, Iskandariya, Baghdad, Tikrit, and Sammara. On February 22, ISIS shot down an Iraqi helicopter and briefly occupied the town of Al Sainiyah, about 180 miles north of Baghdad. They withdrew the next morning, after raising the black flag of ISIS over government buildings and driving around the town all night playing Islamist anthems. On March 9, a suicide bomber detonated a tanker truck at a checkpoint in Hillah, killing 47 and wounding 125.
Among the dead in the fighting with ISIS are not only civilian casualties and Iraqi Army and Police, but also the Awakening militias, which still are not very popular with the Shi’a-majority Baghdad government. On February 27, Sheikh Saeed Fleih al-Osman, the Awakening commander in Haditha, was killed by a VBIED, along with six of his militiamen and five civilians.
The Iraqi Army halted its push into Fallujah for 72 hours on February 22, citing attempts at negotiation to reduce bloodshed. However, given the observed professionalism of the IA, it is more likely that they halted because they were unable to make any major progress at first. They still haven’t. The Iraqi Army is still largely a collection of poorly-trained and poorly-disciplined recruits. The last major operation mounted by the IA was dubbed “Charge of the Knights” against Shi’a militants in northern Basra. They failed, and had to have US forces come in to support them, an option that is no longer on the table since the complete withdrawal of US forces in 2012. The Iraqi government’s offer of $17,200 per insurgent killed doesn’t seem to have accelerated the process any, either.
Prime Minister Maliki has visited Washington to lobby for more weapons to fight the insurgents, but, possibly because of the administration’s reluctance to do much with Iraq, believing the Iraq War to have been a mistake, hasn’t gotten very far. In response, it came out in February, he has signed a $195 million arms deal with Iran, citing the US’ failure to support the Iraqi efforts against the Islamist insurgents. The contracts with the Iranians are for small arms, machine guns, mortars, artillery, ammunition from small arms up to tanks, night vision, communications, and CBR protective gear.
On March 8, Maliki publicly accused Saudi Arabia and Qatar of funding ISIS and other Salafist insurgent groups in Iraq. He claimed that the Saudis and Qataris are attacking Iraq through Syria, and blamed them for the Syrian Civil War. Maliki is Shi’a, and has long had chilly relations with the two majority-Sunni states.
Both the arms deal and the accusations against the Saudis and Qataris illustrate Iraq’s trending movement in the ongoing Sunni-Shi’a/Saudi-Iranian conflict that is at its most violent in Syria at the moment. A majority Shi’a state, Iraq has made a decided shift toward Iran recently, especially since the US withdrawal. As violence continues to escalate both in Iraq and neighboring Syria, it is looking more and more like Iraq might be drawn fully into Iran’s orbit. This might well be necessary for Iran in the event they lose Syria as a viable ally.