Iraq still faces tough military battles and hard political choices in the wake of the surprisingly quick advance over the weekend to oust Islamic State militants from the northern city of Tal Afar.
Brutal counterinsurgency battles lie ahead on both sides of the border with Syria, and Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi now faces a stepped-up schedule to establish stability and political reconciliation in the regions recaptured from the Islamic State, officials and analysts say.
On Wednesday, Iraqi military and counterterrorism forces pressed deeper into the heart of Tal Afar. The city lies less than 50 miles west of Mosul, which until last month was Islamic State’s biggest urban stronghold in Iraq.
U.S.-backed Iraqi forces captured the city center in Tal Afar over the weekend, reaching a major milestone in the city’s liberation in little over a week after Baghdad kicked off the offensive.
The campaign stood in sharp contrast to the nine-month slog to fully reclaim Mosul, where Islamic State militants put up a fierce resistance and showed little hesitation in using civilians as shields to slow the Iraqi advance.
Mr. al-Abadi arrived in Tal Afar on Saturday to see firsthand the progress of the Iraqi and coalition offensive, in which 200 Islamic State fighters were reported killed and 16 of the city’s 28 districts were returned to the control of government forces.
“The enemy’s back is broken. Their morale is gone,” Lt. Gen. Sami al-Aridhi, a senior commander leading Iraqi counterterrorism units in Tal Afar, told reporters Sunday.
But the Pentagon, which has often tempered expansive claims by its ally in Baghdad, sounded a more cautious tone, noting that portions of Tal Afar remain within the Islamic State’s grip. “The city is not completely liberated yet,” Pentagon spokesman Col. Robert Manning said Monday.
“The Iraqi forces have made incredible progress in Tal Afar, but the fight against ISIS continues,” he told reporters during a briefing at the Pentagon.
Although Tal Afar’s city center and key infrastructure centers are under Iraqi control, coalition forces remain engaged in dangerous back-clearing operations, focusing on pockets of Islamic State resistance, Col. Manning said.
Iraqi and coalition commanders are already setting their sights beyond Tal Afar into the larger northern Nineveh province. Their operation will target any remaining Islamic State redoubts north of the city, said Col. Manning.
Coalition forces also have begun preparing the battlefield for the next offensive in the Iraqi city of Hawija, a major Islamic State enclave just over 150 miles southeast of Tal Afar.
As Baghdad continues to rack up combat victories against a weakened Islamic State, battered by overwhelming firepower of the coalition-backed Iraqi military, new political and military cleavages threaten to undermine those successes. Iraqi Kurdish forces and the Shiite militias with ties to Iran are almost certain to push their own agendas once the Islamic State threat is rolled back.
Mr. al-Abadi and the government in Baghdad have yet to come up with a viable political solution to keep the various ethnic and sectarian groups in Nineveh province from turning their guns on one another once they defeat the Islamic State. The Iraqi military’s growing momentum on the battlefield is rapidly closing the political window.
Tehran vs. Riyadh
The Tal Afar offensive featured the largest combat role for the Tehran-backed Shiite militias, known as Popular Mobilization Units or PMUs, since Iraqi military and militia forces retook Fallujah from Islamic State control in May.
The Shiite paramilitaries were largely sidelined in the fight for Mosul amid accusations that they participated in extrajudicial killings during offensives in heavily Sunni Fallujah and Anbar province.
Coalition officials saw the militias, trained and equipped in part by units from the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and its elite Quds Force, as an overt effort by Iran to expand its influence in Iraq — similar to Tehran’s efforts backing government forces in Syria.
U.S. and coalition commanders refused to provide any military support to the Shiite militia units in the fight against Islamic State. But Baghdad chose to fold the PMUs into the overall force ahead of the Mosul offensive and tasked them with leading the attack on Tal Afar and Mosul’s western flank when the operation kicked off in October. The speed of the battlefield win in Tal Afar, along with the heavy military role that Shiite militias played in the operation, could further cement the paramilitaries’ role in a post-Islamic State Iraqi military and Tehran’s influence among the country’s armed forces.
The Pentagon downplayed any concern that the Tal Afar victory would give the Shiite militias a larger part in the offensives in Hawija and western Anbar province. Iraqis and PMUs have “shown exceptional professionalism” by taking efforts to minimize civilian casualties and collateral damage during the offensive, Col. Manning said during a Defense Department briefing.
But a meeting between Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and hard-line Iraqi Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr late last month may indicate that Riyadh is looking to hedge its bets against increased Iranian influence in Iraq.
Mr. Sadr’s Mahdi Army and other Sadrists battled U.S. and coalition forces in Najaf and Sadr City during some of the worst fighting following the 2003 U.S. invasion. His militia, dubbed Saraya Al-Salam, holds sway over 700 square miles of Shiite-dominated territory in northern Iraq, mostly in Nineveh province.
Although Riyadh has mostly remained on the sidelines in the sectarian tug of war inside Iraq, Mr. Sadr was reportedly invited by the crown prince and former Saudi Ambassador to Iraq Thamer al-Sabhan for “discussions of common interest.”
It was the first visit back to Saudi Arabia for the Shiite cleric since 2006, Al Jazeera reported at the time. Saudi Arabia officially reopened its embassy in Iraq in 2015 after a 25-year diplomatic absence in the country, according to the report.
With its territory waning in northern Iraq, Islamic State fighters are also looking to fan Iraq’s sectarian divisions, undertaking a new round of suicide bombings and attacks, targeting Shiite targets in Baghdad and other cities.
On Monday, Islamic State claimed responsibility for a massive car bomb that ripped through a street market in eastern Baghdad’s Sadr City. At least 12 people were killed and 28 wounded when the explosive-laden vehicle detonated inside the Jamila market, The Associated Press reported. Members of the Amaq News Agency, the Islamic State’s online propaganda wing, claimed responsibility for the attack.
The bombing was the third in three days targeting Shiite enclaves in the capital city, terrorist watchdog group SITE intelligence reported Monday. The terrorist group has claimed responsibility for over 20 separate bombings and suicide attacks in and around Baghdad since Aug. 9, just over a week after Iraqi forces claimed victory in Mosul.
While parallels in terrain and tactics may exist between Mosul and Tal Afar, commanders in Baghdad may be forces to change tack once the fight shifts to western Anbar, where Islamic State fighters enjoy greater freedom of movement in a more rural environment.
That could expand and extend the American military adviser mission, in both force levels and operational mandates, for the next 18 months as Baghdad tries to restabilize recently liberated areas in Mosul, Tal Afar and the surrounding Nineveh province, Canadian Brig. Gen. D.J. Anderson, then director of partner force development, told reporters at the Pentagon shortly after the fall of Mosul.
Coalition commanders anticipate requiring 25,000 Iraqi police, in addition to military and counterterrorism forces, to secure Mosul and the surrounding Nineveh province in the country’s north, he told reporters at the Pentagon.
“It involves the army, it involves elements of the federal police, the local police which secure the cities, elements of the [counterterrorism services] to conduct counterinsurgency and counterterrorist operations and, of course, in some of the provinces border guards as well,” said Gen. Anderson. “We’ll stay in the business in the manner that we are for a long time.”