Islamic State reverses some losses in Iraq amid US-led airstrikes

US warplanes were part of an action to defend the oil refining city of Baiji from the group yesterday. Today, a major IS offensive is underway in Anbar Province.

Reuters
Iraqi security forces look for Islamic State militants on the outskirts of Ramadi.

The so-called Islamic State attacked villages on the outskirts of Ramadi in apparent preparation for an attempt to take full control of the last population center outside its hands in Iraq's westernmost province.

The provincial government has been under siege in Ramadi, the capital of Anbar Province, since the start of 2014, and most of the province is now outside of government hands. CNN quotes Anbar Provincial Council member Falih Essawi as saying the central government's grip is slipping, with an IS (also known as ISIS) effort to cut off the city from Baghdad to the east underway.

Essawi said ISIS militants made significant advances Wednesday in three areas east of Ramadi: Albu Soda, Albu Ghanem and parts of Soufia, which leads to central Ramadi. Over the weekend, the militants seized control of areas north of Ramadi. Routes south of the city were taken some months ago.

That leaves only areas to the west of Ramadi in the hands of government forces, but those positions are under threat, Essawi warned.The recent fighting has driven a steady stream of refugees out of the city. On Wednesday, some residents packed what they could into metal carts as they prepared to flee on foot.

Yesterday, the US-led air campaign against IS in Iraq and Syria – called "Operation Inherent Resolve" – carried out a series of strikes around the oil refining town of Baiji to help government positions. Baiji is the next major town north of Tikrit, the hometown of Saddam Hussein that Iraqi government forces retook from IS earlier this month. It lies about midway between Baghdad and Mosul, the northern city that IS has held since last summer.

Brig. Gen. Thomas Weidley said in a statement that "coalition strike and reconnaissance assets directly supported Iraqi Security Force's operations in Bayji with seven dynamic airstrikes. The ISF, enabled by the coalition, continues to deny ISIL small unit attacks and maintained their positions within the Bayji Oil Refinery."

The statement said the airstrikes in Baiji hit three IS tactical units, a suicide car-bomber that had not yet reached its target, and 12 buildings under the group's control. There were also three airstrikes around Fallujah yesterday, a strike on an IS building in Mosul, and strikes on IS  soldiers around Ramadi.

In March, reporter David Enders spent a few days in Ramadi and described a situation of nominal government control in the center of town. In his time there he saw fluid lines of control and constant probing attacks on government lines by suicide bombers.

In a series of interviews, Iraqi officials told VICE News that they fear Islamic State fighters will overrun what remains of Government-held Ramadi if the US did not intervene with air support. According to police in Ramadi, more than 2,000 officers have been killed since January 2014, when the Islamic State – then known mainly as ISIS or ISIL – first announced its presence in the city.

This casualty rate is telling: Before the war, Ramadi was home to about 200,000 people, out of a total population of 33 million. The US lost 4,489 soldiers during more than a decade of fighting across Iraq. And the deaths of the Iraqi security forces were preceded by a year-long IS assassination campaign of tribal leaders and families who had sided with the government.

In Mr. Ender's short film on his trip to Ramadi, he interviewed refugees fleeing from the Anbar city of Fallujah – where US forces fought two major battles against jihadi insurgents – and they told him the town was completely in the insurgent group's hands.

Yesterday, during Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi's visit to Washington, the US said that roughly 25 to 30 percent of territory captured inside Iraq by IS has since been retaken during Inherent Resolve.

Iraqi forces have retaken critical areas of the country, including the Mosul Dam, Sinjar Mountain, Diyala, Tikrit, and areas near Kirkuk. In both Iraq and Syria, over 3,200 U.S. and coalition strikes have damaged or destroyed over 5,780 ISIL targets including 75 tanks and 285 Humvees in ISIL control, 1,166 ISIL fighting positions, and 151 oil infrastructure-related targets that ISIL operated.

Teams of U.S. and coalition personnel are supporting efforts to advise and assist Iraqi Security Forces (ISF), including Peshmerga forces,  in planning military operations, intelligence sharing, integrating air support and land operations, managing logistics, command and control of forces, and communications.  These teams are also assisting the Iraqi government as they train and equip Sunni tribal fighters as recruits into the Popular Mobilization Forces in Anbar and Ninewa provinces.

But gains are by no means assured, and IS continues to show plenty of fight. The Associated Press describes a difficult situation around Ramadi.

The dawn push by ISIS seized the villages of Sjariyah, Albu-Ghanim and Soufiya, which had been under government control, the residents said, adding that the fighting was taking place on the eastern edges of Ramadi, about two kilometers (mile) away from local government building.

In Soufiya, the militants bombed a police station and took over a power plant. The residents, who spoke on condition of anonymity fearing for their own safety, said airstrikes were trying to back up Iraqi troops...

Also, a spate of militant attack in and outside Baghdad killed at least 43 people over the past two days.

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