The Cable

Shifting Sands: Fight in Iraq Moves to Baiji; Fate of Ramadi Unclear

Beyond the botched rollout of the military campaign in Mosul, or the new attack plan in Anbar province, lies the Iraqi town of Baiji. The mostly Sunni district north of Baghdad is a blip on most maps, and it holds none of the symbolism of the upcoming fights to liberate Mosul, where the Islamic State ...

A member of the Iraqi police forces walks during clashes with jihadists in Ramadi as the Islamic State jihadist group.
A member of the Iraqi police forces walks during clashes with jihadists in Ramadi as the Islamic State jihadist group.

Beyond the botched rollout of the military campaign in Mosul, or the new attack plan in Anbar province, lies the Iraqi town of Baiji. The mostly Sunni district north of Baghdad is a blip on most maps, and it holds none of the symbolism of the upcoming fights to liberate Mosul, where the Islamic State is headquartered in Iraq, nor Ramadi and Fallujah, where U.S. forces fought some of the bloodiest battles of the war a decade ago.

But Baiji commands an even greater spoil in the new front against the extremists: Iraq’s main oil hub, which is at the heart of the country’s entire economic structure.

“Baiji is a more strategic target,” Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey told reporters at the Pentagon on Thursday. “That’s why the focus right now is in fact on Baiji.”

He said the U.S.-led coalition that is helping Iraq defeat the Islamic State is focusing much of its surveillance and air support on the oil refinery.

Islamic State fighters have stepped up their attacks on the massive refinery about 130 miles north of Baghdad in recent days, releasing a video on April 16 showing the effects of a suicide bombing, small arms clashes, and even children being pressed into service to attack Iraqi government forces, which continue to hold most of the complex.

Over the past two days, the U.S.-led coalition in Iraq has carried out eight airstrikes near Baiji and four near Ramadi, the capital of Iraq’s western Anbar province, according to a tally released by the U.S. Central Command on April 16.

Asked about the significance of Ramadi falling to stepped-up Islamic State attacks, Dempsey said that “the city itself is not symbolic in any way; it’s not been declared part of the caliphate on one hand or central to the future of Iraq. But we want to get it back.”

The security situation in sparsely populated Anbar province has for the past year been characterized by scattered “pockets” held by Iraqi forces and Islamic State militants, Dempsey said, “so it’s been a much more dynamic back and forth” than elsewhere in the country.

The attack on Ramadi is yet another indication that what the government of Iraq needs to do is “connect these ‘inkblots’ of their legitimate security forces so that there isn’t this constant back and forth,” Dempsey said. “And that was the topic of conversation with [Iraqi] Prime Minister [Haider] Abadi yesterday. It is his intent to focus now on al-Anbar province.”

Speaking in Washington on April 15, Abadi confirmed that “we are going at the same time — Baiji and al-Anbar.”

Just two months ago, the U.S. Central Command controversially boasted about the coming Iraqi assault on the northern city of Mosul to wrest it from the grip of Islamic State fighters.

The plan — which came along with troop numbers, areas of approach, and an April/May timeline — now appears to have been pushed back indefinitely as priorities in Iraq shift.

Anbar was the bloodiest province for U.S. forces during the eight-year American war there, and Ramadi in particular was the scene of years of fierce fighting. It is also the place where the Sunni tribal pushback against al Qaeda, known as “the Awakening,” was first embraced by a handful of innovative American soldiers and Marines before the infamous “Surge” of U.S. forces took place in 2007.

The campaign against the Islamic State in Iraq is doing little to fix the structural problems in Iraqi society, according to Yezid Sayigh, an expert at the Carnegie Endowment Middle East, told reporters Thursday. The Abadi government has only been “tinkering” at the edges of those problems, he said, adding that “there has been no frank and head-on addressing of the real challenges facing the Iraqi state,” which have to do with the exclusion of Sunnis and Kurds from much of Baghdad’s decision-making.

Sayigh also criticized the decision to launch a hasty counteroffensive against the Islamic State in Iraq, which he said had resulted in the empowerment of Shiite and Sunni militias, thus undermining the “central state” institutions. “A far more intelligent strategy” would have been to “hold the line” against the Islamic State while rebuilding the Iraqi military and working on a better deal to offer Iraq’s Sunni population, Sayigh said, adding that such an approach would have taken an extra six to 12 months.

Frederic Wehrey, another Carnegie analyst who spoke alongside Sayigh on Thursday, noted that despite its barbarity, the Islamic State still holds an appeal for some Iraqi Sunnis who feel neglected or oppressed by Abadi’s Shiite-dominated government. “At its core ISIS is still a vehicle for Sunni grievances,” he said. “As tribes do, they’re going with the more powerful entity.”

Photo: Getty Images

Seán D. Naylor is the author of Relentless Strike – The Secret History of Joint Special Operations Command. Twitter: @seandnaylor

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