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The US Is Reporting Gains Against the Islamic State in Iraq — But How Much Ground Do the Jihadists Really Control?

Washington says a quarter of Iraqi territory seized by the Islamic State has been retaken since the US-led coalition began airstrikes — but the group is fighting back and progress will not be easy.
April 17, 2015, 9:31am
Image via AP

The Pentagon's recent announcement that a quarter of Iraqi territory seized by Islamic State (IS) militants has been retaken since the US-led coalition began targeting it with airstrikes suggests progress is being made. But the fight against the group is not likely to be easy and the remarks come as it makes new gains in the west of the country.

Col Steve Warren told reporters on Monday that the jihadists had been pushed out of 25-30 percent — around 5-6,000 square miles — of the Iraqi land under their control.


IS overran a large swathe of the country in a shock offensive last summer but local forces supported by mostly US air power have regained some of the lost territory since August.

"ISIL has lost large areas where it was once dominant," he said, using an alternative acronym for the group, and adding that its fighters had pulled back around strategically important areas including Baghdad, the Kurdish capital of Erbil and Kirkuk.

Pro-government forces recently inflicted a major defeat on IS by driving them from Saddam Hussein's hometown of Tikrit, and Warren said that the corridor north of the city was now "substantially retaken," and that he expected the rest of the area to follow.

The combination of coalition air strikes and efforts by local forces has "unquestionably inflicted some damage on ISIL and have pushed ISIL back in a somewhat meaningful way," he said, but cautioned that it was too early to say the tide was turning in Iraq.

Michael Knights of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy told VICE News that the percentage figure was "nonsense" because much of the territory mentioned is unpopulated. "They don't control empty stretches of Anbar desert where they have no forces, where no-one does."

Knights adds that even Iraq's second city of Mosul, which is currently held by IS, will likely fall reasonably quickly to a government force, which, as with Tikrit, will force the jihadists to fall back and resort to insurgent tactics.


But he cautions that other parts of the country will not be taken so easily. "The next stage of the war — after Mosul, Fallujah, Tal Afar — will be about battling for the populated rural belts close-in to Iraqi towns, lasting through much of 2016 at least. That's going to be much harder than getting back into the cities that IS is not particularly good at defending."

The group may also make additional progress as it has done recently in Anbar. On Wednesday it seized several villages close to the provincial capital of Ramadi after launching a series of dawn assaults, the Associated Press said.

The militants have been pushing towards the city since Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al Abadi launched a major offensive to drive them out of the majority Sunni province last week. Government efforts were intended to build on victory in Tikrit, but IS have now pushed to within three miles of Ramadi, according to reports.

Parts of Anbar, a core Sunni territory, have been under insurgent control since before IS's summer advance. Other majority Sunni areas, including Ninevah are still under IS control.

IS also holds large parts of neighboring Syria, and the US judgement of its presence in the country noted that despite coalition efforts, its area of influence was largely unchanged, with any losses offset by gains elsewhere.

The group recently advanced on Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp just outside Damascus, giving it a significant presence just miles from the capital. There have been conflicting reports about the current status of the camp; on Wednesday, a Palestinian official and residents told Reuters that the IS fighters had now largely withdrawn after pushing out ideologically opposed rival militant group Aknaf al Maqdis, which is affiliated with Hamas. But the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a UK-based monitoring group, said on Thursday that clashes were ongoing and that 80 percent of Yarmouk was under the combined control of IS and Jabhat al Nusra.

Al Qaeda's Syrian branch, Jabhat al Nusra is the other main armed faction in Yarmouk. It has clashed with IS elsewhere in Syria but often cooperates in the south, and Palestinians accuse it of allowing IS into the camp.

Follow John Beck on Twitter: @JM_Beck