ISIS social media image of ISIS fighters parading with captured Iraq security forces vehicles
In late December 2013, Iraqi security forces stormed a Sunni protest camp in Ramadi, the capital of Iraq’s restive Anbar province. The Shiite-dominated government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki claimed that the protest camp had become a haven for militants with ties to al Qaeda.
Maliki’s crackdown provoked an uprising in Anbar’s cities, as tribal rebels assaulted and seized control of government buildings and police stations. As he seemed set to lose his grip on Anbar, Maliki withdrew the army from Ramadi and Fallujah, Anbar’s main cities, on New Year's Eve. Unhelpfully for the Prime Minister, this proved an even more disastrous step – as the Iraqi army moved out, in poured hundreds of vehicles flying the flag of the al Qaeda originated, homegrown jihadist group the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) from the surrounding desert.
By early January, the government’s control over Anbar's main cities had almost entirely collapsed, with ISIS and groups of tribal insurgents taking over Fallujah, and controlling nearly half of Ramadi.
ISIS was able to take the former city despite being outnumbered by local government-aligned tribal fighters and other insurgent groups. In early January, as ISIS convoys moved in, its fighters reportedly declared Fallujah an Islamic emirate, and hoisted their black flags over police stations and the main government buildings. Soon, the radical cleric Abdullah al-Janabi was back on the scene. Al Janabi used to lead the Mujahideen Shura Council in Fallujah, a group established by ISIS' precursor, al Qaeda in Iraq. Last time he was in the city, he took it upon himself to set up Sharia courts whose punishments "made the Taliban look soft". Now he is back, openly preaching in mosques.
ISIS has also announced the establishment of a "Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice" to enforce its strict interpretation of Islamic law, and in a coalition with other insurgent groups set up an administrative structure to control the city and keep public services running.
Despite its reputation for fearsome brutality ISIS has moved cautiously in Fallujah, indicating that – in Iraq, at least – the jihadist group appears to have learnt the lesson of the 2006 Anbar Awakening. Back then, local tribes and insurgents who'd grown resentful of ISIS' domination allied with the Americans and the Iraqi government to drive the group out of the province.
“ISIS’ strategy has been much more conciliatory then was initially expected when it entered the town,” observes Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi, a fellow at the Middle East Forum, noting that despite fears of mass executions of local police and their families, ISIS has not moved against them. Al Tamimi also notes that “the group’s financial resources have enabled it to engage in outreach to residents, sheikhs and religious scholars”. Finally, in a Sunni city with a history of rebellion against the US occupation and the Iraqi government, “there is undoubtedly appreciation on the part of many people in Fallujah that ISIS plays the main role in leading the boldest offensives on Iraq’s security forces in the wider Anbar area”.
The provincial capital of Ramadi, which the Iraqi government has repeatedly claimed to have cleared of ISIS insurgents, has proven to be a meat grinder for the Iraqi army. There has been continuous fighting in the city since January and ISIS still controls several neighbourhoods in southeastern Ramadi. In response, the Iraqi government has deployed elite Special Operations units that include the notorious Golden Division, which answers directly to Prime Minister Maliki.
But, while the Golden Division and elite counterterrorism units are adept at clearing insurgents from an area, they are then forced to turn security over to regular Iraqi Army units. Inevitably, this leads to problems.
ISIS image of destroyed Iraqi army vehicles in Ramadi
Iraqi soldiers in Ramadi face a far more level playing field then US Marines did when they were here clearing the city in 2006. However, they are increasingly overstretched, suffering from ammunition shortages, massive desertions and a critical lack of air support. ISIS has captured large quantities of Iraqi army equipment, including rifles, body armour, helmets and night-vision equipment, Humvees, pickup trucks and even US-supplied armoured personnel carriers. Images have emerged of ISIS fighters using captured anti-tank guided missiles against the very Iraq army tanks and personnel carriers they are meant to defend.
The fighting has been merciless and brutal: in March, video footage emerged on social media of an ISIS fighter moving down along a row of kneeling Iraqi soldiers, executing them one by one with a pistol. Iraqi army units have also reportedly carried out extrajudicial killings of ISIS fighters, parading images of the mutilated bodies on social media. In gruesome scenes reminiscent of the Blackwater guard killings that sparked the first battle of Fallujah in 2004, ISIS militants have responded by burning the bodies of Iraqi soldiers and dragging the corpses behind a captured Humvee.
Iraqi Special Operations Forces fighting ISIS insurgents in Ramadi in March
The work of ISIS to thwart and frustrate the Iraqi government have gone beyond murder and theft. In March, ISIS insurgents closed the gates of a dam on the Euphrates river south of Fallujah, flooding nearby rural areas to impede the movements of Iraqi security forces and nearly turning the city into an island. The flooding has forced the Iraqi army to pull back from the city and rely almost entirely on imprecise, long-range artillery, killing tens of civilians every day. Large areas of agricultural land have disappeared beneath floodwater, displacing thousands of families and destroying homes and fields.
The closure of the dam has caused water shortages throughout southern Iraq, and worsened Iraq’s already dismal energy situation, with power plants dependent on Euphrates water reportedly operating at 50 percent below capacity, causing massive blackouts and power shortages. As elections approach, in what will largely be a referendum on Prime Minister Maliki’s security policy, ISIS is in a position to wage economic warfare on a massive scale.
The growth of the insurgency has not been restricted to Anbar. In early April, video footage emerged of a 100-vehicle ISIS convoy parading through Abu Ghraib on the western outskirts of Baghdad. The site of the notorious prison is located a mere 30 miles from the Green Zone, the centre of the Iraqi government, and five miles from Baghdad International Airport and Camp Victory, the former US headquarters in Iraq. Insurgents have also asserted control over vast rural areas west and south of the capital, moving to encircle the city from all sides in a repeat of the push they made into Baghdad at the height of the Iraq war in 2006 and 2007.
ISIS forces with a captured Iraqi Army tank after an ambush in al-Humayrah
As the insurgency has grown, the US has supplied Iraqi forces with ammunition, M4 rifles, nearly 100 Hellfire missiles and surveillance drones, with Apache helicopters and F-16 fighters slated for delivery later this year. According to Daniele Raineri, a journalist for the Italian newspaper Il Foglio who specialises in the Iraq insurgency, the US has also intervened more directly. Raineri says US surveillance drones flew over Anbar in December and January to provide intelligence to Iraqi forces, and the NSA, which gathers metadata on all telephone communications in Iraq, has helped Iraqi security forces to locate and target ISIS leaders. This strategy appears to be having some success in Anbar province.
Nonetheless, as elections approach on the 30th of April, ISIS insurgents remain in control of Anbar’s main cities and are drawing ever closer to Baghdad. Iraq’s security forces are ineffective and overstretched, and this time there are no tens of thousands of US troops to flood into the country to beat back the insurgency.
In a speech at the beginning of April, Abu Muhammad al-Adnani, ISIS' firebrand spokesman, trumpeted: "We have returned to the cities, and controlled the ground, and we will be killed a thousand times before we think of going back. The cities and provinces that are under our control, on top of them Fallujah, will not be ruled today, by the Will of Allah, except by the Law of Allah, and there will be no place in it for the secularists. For Fallujah is Fallujah of the Mujahideen and Anbar is Anbar of the Mujahideen."
Some ten years after it first began, the Iraqi insurgency has been fully reborn, and the conflict is escalating into a bloody new phase.