Iraq Pulse

IS withdrawal strategy calls for creation of local defense forces

Article Summary
To fight the Islamic State, the Iraqi government should create Sunni local defense forces, similar to the Kurdish peshmerga forces, even though this might be at the expense of the government’s unity.

During the weeks that followed the incursion of the Islamic State (IS) into Mosul and its expansion toward other Iraqi cities, which resulted in the withdrawal of Iraqi security and military forces as well as the Kurdish peshmerga, talks about “tactical withdrawal” prevailed. Every party, namely the Iraqi forces, the Kurdish peshmerga and IS, claimed to have tactically withdrawn from Anah in western Iraq.

Iraqi and peshmerga forces did not exert real effort in the fight to win back the territories they lost up until the US intervention on Aug. 8. Similarly, IS militants did not fiercely fight to control the cities and villages they entered.

Cities fell under IS rule within a few hours with no real resistance on the part of the military forces. Over the last few weeks, media outlets received official army statements about the deaths of hundreds and maybe thousands of IS militants, countered by other statements issued by IS about the deaths of thousands of army and peshmerga troops.

As to military equipment, some vehicles were destroyed by the withdrawing forces. However, the large amount of equipment and heavy weapons that IS seized provide further proof that no real act of resistance took place.

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It is important to understand that IS retreats from certain areas where it knows the army is unable to maintain its control, and then returns at a later stage. This is the reason it usually resorts to a smooth withdrawal from the sites it controls if it encounters heavy attacks. Such withdrawal is indeed tactical, because it is based on the hypothesis that the Iraqi army will not be able to control the land upon entering.

For example, the Iraqi army succeeded more than once in entering Tikrit, yet it could not take control, which allowed IS to set up ambushes and then attack the army from different directions, inflicting losses and forcing the soldiers to retreat.

Maj. Gen. Fadel Barwari, head of the Iraqi Special Operations Forces, also dubbed the Commandos or the Golden Division, seconded this view. He told Al-Monitor that his forces fought scores of battles against IS and were well acquainted with its military style. This is why they were able to storm into any IS-controlled area.

He said, “The task of the forces that I lead and that are trained at the hands of the Americans is to carry out special missions and dangerous raids, and this is what we do. We hand over the areas that we storm into to security and military forces, which are in charge of controlling the land. Here lies the main problem.”

“The inability of Iraqi forces to control the liberated land comes from the lack of traditional defense mechanisms such as air forces, logistical abilities to build fortifications and the necessary supplies to link battlefronts,” Barwari said.

Controlling the land has always been related to the stance of the locals. It has become clear that the Iraqi forces, which are aided by Shiite militias, will not be able to control any Sunni cities for more than a few hours. IS will, as usual, withdraw after the advancement of the army and bet on the residents’ fears of retaliatory attacks, thus gaining their support.

Atheel al-Nujaifi, governor of Mosul, told Al-Monitor in a phone interview that the Iraqi army and even the peshmerga forces could not liberate the Sunni cities from the control of IS due to the residents' fear. What is needed is to establish Sunni forces that are well trusted by residents to take on this task and exterminate IS, according to Nujaifi.

Nujaifi said negotiations were taking place to establish forces made up of residents of Mosul, Salahuddin, Anbar, Diyala and Kirkuk. These forces would consist of tribesmen and groups opposed to IS and would be supported by the Iraqi army and the peshmerga forces, with the US military providing cover. They would work under the auspices of the state, and not independently, to completely liberate Sunni cities.

Nujaifi added that the future of governance in post-IS Iraq was related to acknowledging these forces and transforming them into state forces by making each governorate a federal state, in such a way that allows it to defend itself and govern its own affairs, as is the case in Iraqi Kurdistan with the peshmerga.

Announcing the formation of these forces will take time, and time is sometimes in the Islamic State’s favor. IS, however, has become less capable of threatening Baghdad, and is now in a defensive mode after the peshmerga forces, with the support of the United States, succeeded in regaining control of the towns they previously lost and imposing control over such a vital facility as the Mosul Dam.

It is important to note that although this open war can play in favor of IS, it imposes existential challenges to the organization. The loss of cities such as Fallujah and Tikrit would lead to the loss of other cities, including Mosul.

Military leaders such as Barwari question whether IS enjoys the necessary logistical capacities to defend a large number of distant cities and towns in an open war.

The answer, which is supported by facts on the ground and testimonies of field commanders in the Iraqi army, confirms that IS does not have such capabilities. This is why it is maneuvering and acting in small groups, withdrawing from combat positions and returning to them later. But, the organization is unprepared and untrained, and does not possess the capabilities required to control the land and defend it.

The bad news is that taking advantage of the Islamic State's weaknesses involves forming local Sunni forces and making them a qualitative rival. This requires time and effort, and may harm the Iraqi state, which is supposed to fight off IS while remaining united.

The good news is that those involved in talks in Baghdad, Erbil and Washington on the means to fight IS maintain that there is no choice other than to reach internal Iraqi consensus over the war on IS.

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Found in: united states, shiite-sunni conflict, peshmerga, mosul, islamic state, iraqi kurdistan, iraq

Mushreq Abbas is a contributing writer for Al-Monitor’s Iraq Pulse. He has been managing editor of Al-Hayat’s Iraq bureau since 2005 and has written studies and articles on Iraqi crises for domestic and international publication.

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