Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Iraq Situation Report: August 13, 2014

by ISW Iraq Team, Jessica D. Lewis, Lauren Squires, and Nichole Dicharry

Control of Terrain in Iraq: August 13, 2014

by ISW Iraq Team and Nichole Dicharry

Maliki calls for Federal Court ruling and US increases presence in Northern Iraq

by ISW Iraq Team, Jessica Lewis, Kimberly Kagan

Maliki continues to resist Iraq’s transition to a new Premiership, and the security forces under his control remain active to protect pro-Maliki demonstrations in Baghdad. Attacks by ISIS in Baghdad may increase public backlash against the ISF for failing to provide security, and the capital is made vulnerable by these concurrent internal security concerns. While the U.S. increases military presence in Arbil, Iraq's security rests on the peaceful transition of power to a new premier in Baghdad who can command and control the Iraqi Security Forces operating against the pressing threat of ISIS.

Maliki calls for Federal Court Ruling

Nouri al-Maliki continues to speak from the position of Prime Minister, claiming that it will take a federal court ruling for him to leave power. Maliki stated, “I confirm that the government will continue and there will not be a replacement for it without a decision from the federal court,” according to a source quoting his speech on August 13. Calling the appointment of Haider al-Abadi to the Premiership a “constitutional breach,” Maliki also called on citizens of Iraq to reject the breach. Responding to this call, Maliki supporters demonstrated in the Furdus Square on August 13 in support of a third term while Iraqi Police and the Iraqi Army blocked main streets leading to the Square. The demonstration concluded, and streets were reopened as of 1330 local time, indicating that these demonstrations are not mass events, but rather controlled and organized on a smaller scale, and only within Baghdad.

This third pro-Maliki demonstration since August 10 comes after the Marjeya called yesterday for the populace not to take to the streets on either side. The security posture within Baghdad therefore continues to shift along political lines as elements of the ISF move to secure demonstrations, most likely under the direction of Maliki’s inner circle. Maliki tried further to consolidate his position by appointing Khalf Abdul-Samad to be leader of his Dawa bloc at the Council of Representatives (CoR) on August 13. This may have been a move by Maliki to co-opt forming resistance within the Dawa party. While Samad had previously stated that the 45 of the 54 members of the bloc support Maliki, other reports indicated that some Dawa members who did not originally support Abadi have expressed interest in supporting him now. Samad is a Maliki loyalist and may be attempting to regain the support of these defecting members. Therefore a Dawa press conference scheduled for today has been delayed to August 14, 2014.

Iraqi citizens also mobilized in Baghdad’s central Karrada neighborhood on August 12. Residents tore down a Federal Police checkpoint after ISIS detonated a VBIED, expressing outrage that the ISF has again failed to provide for security against ISIS in the capital. Yesterday, clashes ensued north of Samarra between volunteers fighting within the ISF against ISIS, fracturing internally along pro-Maliki and anti-Maliki lines. These demonstrations represent internal threats to the ISF that may present within Baghdad and elsewhere. The security of Baghdad therefore remains a chief concern in the days ahead, and some events described below call it into question.

Maliki Support Dwindling

Meanwhile, opposition to Maliki from corners of previous support continued to mount. After Iran, Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq, and the Badr organization abandoned Maliki publically on August 12, support for Abadi has continued to rise among Iraqi Shi’a political leaders. The leader of the ISCI bloc the CoR, Baqir Jabur also indicated that more members who did not express initial support for Abadi stated that they wished to add their names to the list in support of Abadi’s nomination as Prime Minister. Additionally, some reports indicate that ministers comprising the Council of Premiership may have boycotted the weekly session called by Maliki yesterday as the incumbent Prime Minister continued to exercise his role. Among them, deputy PM for Energy Affairs and acting Foreign Minister Hussein al-Shahristani likely did not attend the meeting, given that he nominated Abadi for the position as the leader of Mustaqilun within the State of Law Alliance.

Outside of Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Turkey voiced support for Abadi. Iraq’s Kurdistan Alliance also indicated their support for Maliki’s replacement. Within Iraq’s security forces, some ISF commanders contacted political formations and expressed their neutral stance and distance from the political issues, according to the leader of the Fadila bloc in the CoR, Ammar Tuma. Nevertheless, Maliki has built an inner core within the security forces that will likely remain loyal to his person, and this core is not likely to shift support to Abadi. The behavior of forces loyal to Maliki therefore remains essential to watch.

The safety of Maliki and his protection from prosecution continue to be discussed in western press as potential mitigation for Maliki’s core concerns. Some suggestions extend to offering Maliki the vice presidency, which would entail immunity and government housing inside the Green Zone. Maliki is unlikely to accept such a position, however, given his demonstrated sense of entitlement to the position and his current authority over the security apparatus. The question is not whether Maliki’s personal safety is assured, but whether Maliki will relinquish control of the state after consolidating his personal power over the state apparatus since 2006.

Abadi’s Response

Abadi’s initial response has been measured, with overtures to Maliki and calls for Iraqi unity. On August 12, Abadi called for the Iraqi people to set aside sectarianism and extremism, forming a “unified vision” for Iraq. Abadi also praised the role of the Marjeya, appealing to the Shi’a population to overcome political divides. Other Iraqi reporting indicates that Abadi praised Maliki’s efforts to counter terrorism, calling Maliki a “brother and comrade.” These cautious initial moves appeared to shift on August 13, when Abadi called for political formations to “agree” on the positions of ministers. Moving forward with government formation while Maliki disputes the transition of Premiership will press the issue to resolution. The outcome remains uncertain while Maliki retains coercive means and influence within the judiciary to reject stepping out of the Premiership.

ISIS's Response and Intra-Shi'a Violence

Meanwhile, ISIS detonated three more VBIEDS in Baghdad on August 13, in the Bayaa Amil, and Baghdad al-Jadida neighborhoods in southern and eastern Baghdad. ISIS will likely continue harassment attacks such as these to stress the ISF and exacerbate public reactions such as those observed in Karrada neighborhood on August 12. ISIS may also take this opportunity to escalate attacks while the attention of the ISF is turned inward and divided. ISIS aims to disrupt public confidence in the ISF and in the government. Shi'a groups may also be escalating. Sound bombs, unattributed to any group, have also detonated multiple times, this time in Sadr City on August 13, injuring two civilians. Previously sound bombs detonated in Karbala in late July. It is possible that Shi'a groups, rather than ISIS, are using these sound bombs. The wide range of possible explanations for the perpetrator call attention to the nexus of intra-Shi’a strife, sectarian strife, and terrorism that is present within Baghdad at this time.

U.S. Response Shifts to Security

After issuing congratulations and support to Haider al-Abadi, the U.S. has increased its response to the security crisis in northern Iraq. On August 12, Secretary Hagel stated that 130 US troops would be deployed to Arbil in order to conduct a deeper assessment of the security situation in the north. U.S. CENTCOM also reported that it conducted another humanitarian aid drop on Mount Sinjar using C-17s, C-130s, and fighter aircraft on August 12. Some reports suggest that the U.S. may consider a rescue mission for the stranded Yazidis on the mountain. It is unclear whether U.S. forces deploying to Arbil will be charged with this mission. Rather, it seems likelier that they will be assessing how to train, equip, and assist Kurdish security forces against ISIS. That mission would likely strengthen Arbil vis a vis Baghdad, which may have long term significance if the political crisis in Iraq protracts and Kurdish leaders propose an independent Kurdish state.

Discussions in Washington have also begun to remark upon the effects of U.S. airstrikes to date. The question has specifically been raised about whether airstrikes will have a meaningful effect to degrade ISIS capability; or alternately to cause ISIS to revert to insurgency tactics in urban centers rather than conventional ground maneuver. The low level of U.S. airstrikes to date have played a primarily defensive role; nevertheless, the presence of U.S. airpower, and potentially that of other countries, may alter the military calculus of ISIS going forward. ISIS is likely to consolidate its military presence within urban centers and in the midst of civilian populations.


The U.S. strategy to counter ISIS cannot be discharged solely in northern Iraq and in support of the Kurdish Peshmerga through humanitarian and advising missions there. Iraq's security rests on the peaceful transition of power to a new premier in Baghdad who can command and control the Iraqi Security Forces. Those security forces must then operate successfully against the pressing threat of ISIS.

Maliki's enduring efforts to remove command and control from the formal chain of command and place it in the Office of the Commander in Chief, personally loyal to him, will make this transition exceptionally difficult in any case. The likelihood that Maliki will continue to resist this transition leaves Iraq strategically vulnerable, while ISIS is poised to strike the capital, and the U.S. and others await political resolution.

In reality, the present political crisis will determine whether Iraq implodes. Even the formation of a unity government to form around Haider al-Abadi may not sufficiently provide for Iraq's recovery. The U.S. is waiting for a political process that will not necessarily unfold smoothly, keep Iraq unified, or to defeat ISIS. These challenges require a successful government transition to begin, but they are just a beginning. The United States must engage the ISF directly while mitigating perceptions of Shi'a sectarian preference through Sunni tribal outreach, and it must engage more fully against ISIS. The United States must also embark on security sector reforms to assist the new premier in gaining control of the Iraqi Security Forces in ways that are consistent with democratic processes and the Iraqi constitution.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Iraq Situation Report: August 12, 2014

by ISW Iraq Team, Jessica D. Lewis, Lauren Squires, and Nichole Dicharry

Iran and its Militias Back New Iraq Prime Minister

By: ISW Iraq Team, Jessica D. Lewis, and Kimberly Kagan

Maliki lost the support of Iran and Iranian-backed Shi’a militia groups. This drastically erodes his opportunity to leverage the use of force to secure political gains. It may also generate intra-Shi’a violence where forces loyal to Maliki, especially in Baghdad, come into contact with forces that respond to Iraqi state or Iranian direction. The reaction of the Baghdad security forces that are loyal to Maliki will determine if there is a peaceful transition of power and whether the defense of Baghdad against ISIS will prevail during government transition.

The Iranian-backed Iraqi Shi’a militia, Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq (AAH) decided to abandon support for Maliki. AAH released an official statement to express its support for the decision made by the National Alliance to appoint Haider al-Abadi for the Premiership over Nouri al-Maliki. There are also reports that Hadi al-Amiri, the head of the Badr organization, will give a statement in support of Abadi today. A CoR member from the Badr bloc, Razaq Mhibis also stated his support for Abadi. Statements by these two organizations strongly indicate the Iranian attitude toward Maliki and Iraq’s government formation. AAH and the Badr organization are not likely to make such statements without top cover from Qassem Suleimani and the Iranian regime against Maliki. This Iranian stance was also expressed through official channels when the Iranian foreign minister emphasized in a phone call with his Italian counterpart the need to form an inclusive Iraqi government after Abadi was tasked with the premiership. Also, the Secretary of the Supreme National Security Council, which reports to Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Ali Shamkhani stated that Iran supports the ongoing “legal” process in selecting the new PM. This is a strong indication that Iran desires to preserve the Iraqi state rather than Maliki's rule, now that the Shi'a political parties have united on a premier candidate.

Maliki cannot remain in the premiership in defiance of every other Shi’a party, militia, and Iran. He therefore cannot rely on the ISF where they are fully integrated with militias in Samarra, Diyala Garma, and elsewhere. Iranian-directed militia activities will likely neutralize other elements of the ISF that are loyal to Maliki. Maliki mobilized these forces on August 10 in Baghdad, raising concerns about a possible coup. Reports on August 12 indicated that the ISF units that were deployed by Maliki around the Green Zone redeployed inside, reducing their mobilization posture. Some ISF commander already expressed to Abadi their support for the “peaceful” transition of power and the political process and that their allegiance is “for the county rather than individuals” in a reference to Maliki. On August 12, pro-Maliki volunteers clashed with anti-Maliki volunteers in the area of Abasiay, north of Samarra, a potential realization of this intra-Shi’a conflict spreading outside of Baghdad. However, Maliki can still put up a fight in Baghdad with his most loyal inner circle and trusted praetorian guard. This raises the question about how Maliki will respond to the overt withdrawal of Iranian support.

Qassem Suleimani may first recommend a position for Maliki in the new government, and then exercise an exit strategy for Maliki in the midst of this contest that may reduce the potential for a Maliki-directed mobilization in Baghdad. These actions do not remove the threat of violent clashes among Shi’a groups and ISF elements in Baghdad that have taken opposing sides. Haider al-Abadi will face a challenge to gain control over Maliki’s Baghdad security forces. ISIS will likely take advantage of this contest, as indicated by such attacks in Baghdad as the VBIED and several other explosions reported in Baghdad on August 11.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Maliki Cries Foul as Iraq Appoints New Prime Minister

By ISW Iraq Team and Lauren Squires

In the past 24 hours, the Iraqi political sphere shifted and remains on shaky grounds. Despite Haider al-Abadi’s appointment to prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki has not shown signs of stepping down. Though Maliki has not used overt force to regain political control, security forces remain postured for deployment. The US has expressed public support for Abadi. The next few days will prove pivotal to determine if a peaceful transition of power takes place.

SLA Fractures:

Abadi accepted the National Alliance’s nomination for prime minister and a presidential decree was immediately issued to confirm his appointment. Abadi received votes from 127 members of the National Alliance to include almost half of Maliki’s State of Law Alliance (SLA) members. 38 votes were from Maliki’s Dawa Party while 12 others were from Mustaqilun [Independent] bloc of Hussein al-Shahristani, a bloc also under the SLA. The Badr Organization and the "internal" bloc of Dawa party abstained from voting, apparently abstaining in Maliki’s favor.

Maliki stance:

Maliki refuses to acknowledge Abadi’s appointment to premiership. Maliki insists the "SLA", which he represents, is entitled to the position. Maliki does not recognize the ability of SLA and the Dawa Party to act independently of his leadership. In an effort to overturn Abadi’s appointment to prime minister Maliki sent a letter to the federal court, the CoR speaker, the presidency, and all political blocs calling for them to disregard his nomination. Maliki argued that the SLA is registered under Maliki's name and therefore other SLA members cannot speak on its behalf. Maliki is the secretary general of the Dawa Party in which Abadi is a leader. Given Maliki’s senior position over Abadi, Maliki argues that Abadi’s appointment as prime minister is invalid because Abadi should have never left the party without first gaining Maliki’s approval.

On August 11, Maliki appeared in a video statement along with remaining 29 Dawa Party members who still support Maliki. Maliki reiterated his claim that Abadi’s appointment to premiership is a breach of the Iraqi constitution and he considered this appointment a “setback”. Maliki went on to explain his intent to “fix” it. Also in this statement, a leader in the Dawa Party, Khalaf Abdul-Samad, stated that Abadi signed the nomination without the Dawa Party members’ knowledge. Maliki's claim to the premiership rests upon the assertion that only he has official leadership of both the Dawa Party and the SLA, making any nomination without his approval invalid. Still, Maliki would almost certainly not agree to the nomination of any other individual as prime minister because he is the candidate who holds the most votes from the 2014 national election.

Appointing Ceremony:

A brief ceremony was held to appoint Abadi as prime minister. The five main National Alliance leaders who signed the nomination were present, in addition to the President, the speaker of the CoR, and Abadi. The President’s presence at the ceremony prove that he, along with the Iraqi Shi'a anti-Maliki front have not been detained by security forces as of 1516 local time.

The attendees were:

* From Maliki's Dawa party and SLA, Haidar al-Abadi

* From the Mustaqilun bloc and SLA, Hussein al-Shahristani

* The leader of the NA, Ibrahim al-Jafari.

* Leader of Mowatin of ISCI, Baqir Jabur

* Sadrist leader, Dhia al-Assadi

* Leader in Fadhila

US Stance:

Shortly after Abadi’s appointment, Vice President Joe Biden congratulated Abadi on the position and promised US support for an inclusive Iraqi Government. Vice President Biden also spoke with the Iraqi president and discussed Abadi’s selection, praising President Fouad Masum for accomplishing this fundamental step towards forming an inclusive Iraqi government. He added that President Obama wants to improve cooperation with the new GoI and ISF to reverse ISIS gains. Deputy spokesperson for the US State Department, Marie Harf, stated that Washington supports Abadi’s appointment to PM and Fouad Masum as the president of Iraq. President Obama gave an audio statement expressing support for Iraq’s political developments, stating that he and VP Joe Biden had contacted Abadi and called for the formation of an inclusive government without mentioning Maliki. Leader of the Sadrist Trend, Moqtada al-Sadr spoke in expressed support for Abadi calling the appointment the “first building block” towards an optimistic outcome, and asked his “brothers” in PM Maliki’s Islamic Dawa Party “not resort to violence and push things that are not in the public interest.”


The ISF and ISOF were reportedly heavily deployed around the Green Zone and in strategic areas in Baghdad yesterday, suggesting a possible military coup. As of 0030 on August 12, 2014 local time, there were no reports that these forces detained anti-Maliki officials to achieve political gains and secure a third term for Maliki. Maliki intends to overturn the decision to appoint Abadi as prime minister by appealing to the federal court. Reports indicated that the ISF blocked main streets in central Baghdad to secure a pro-Maliki demonstration but there were no further reports of demonstrations taking place in the capital. If ISF units did indeed block the streets in Baghdad to support pro-Maliki demonstrations, this would indicate these units remain loyal to Maliki. Maliki's use of ISF and ISOF units to maintain political gains remains a possibility. There were also reports that dozens of Maliki supporters from his tribe blocked the road between Basra and Maysan for half an hour in protest. Meanwhile, President Obama spoke in support of Abadi. The ISF and ISIS continue clashes in the provinces. ISIS reportedly took control of Jalula, which the Peshmerga had previously held.

Iraq Situation Report: August 11, 2014

by ISW Iraq Team, Lauren Squires, and Nichole Dicharry

Iraq’s President Selects Haider al Abadi as Prime Minister as Maliki Shows Force in Baghdad

by ISW Iraq Team, Jennifer Cafarella, Jessica Lewis, and Isabel Nassief

Key Takeaway: Iraq’s incumbent Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki maneuvered elite military units in Baghdad overnight on August 10, cutting off entrances to the protected Green Zone, in an effort to secure power by use of force. This is currently serving as a demonstration of force. The National Alliance has nominated an alternate Prime Minister, Haider al-Abadi, who is from Maliki’s Dawa Party and is serving as the Deputy Speaker of Iraq’s parliament.  Iraq’s President Fuad Masum has asked him to form a government. Maliki is not likely to give up power quietly. Today will be decisive for the formation or demise of Iraq’s government.

Despite increasing local and international pressure for his removal from office, Nouri al-Maliki has firmly pursued a third term as Iraqi Prime Minister relying heavily on the high number of seats his State of Law Alliance (SLA) secured in the national elections of April 2014. Nonetheless, urged by the Shia religious establishment in Najaf, major Iraqi Shia political actors in the pan-Shia National Alliance (NA), of which the SLA is a component, continued their efforts to secure an alternate nominee for the premiership in the hope of ushering in a political transition. The NA conducted intense negotiations over the nomination but failed to reach a consensus, since Maliki’s SLA insisted on nominating him for the position.

Iraq’s constitution requires the President of Iraq within fifteen days of his appointment to ask the “largest bloc” in Parliament, from which the premier will be drawn, to form a government. President Fuad Masum took office on July 24, 2014, setting the deadline for this appointment as August 7. A three-day extension to the initial 15-day deadline expired on August 10 withoutthe election of a Prime Minister by the Iraqi Council of Representatives (CoR). Instead, the speaker of the CoR announced a second extension, identifying a new August 19 deadline in order to “allow additional time” for further negotiations. Reports also surfacedthat the Iraqi President requested that the National Alliance (NA) meet during a one-day extension to select a Prime Minister. A meeting was reportedly held between the NA representatives without the participation of Maliki’s Dawa Party. The presence of other SLA members in this meeting indicates that opposition to Maliki is not limited to the NA. Further signs of rifts within the SLA appeared when the official SLA Twitter account was broadcasted anti-Maliki tweets and warned against the use of force to secure political gains. One Tweetread “The decision of the SLA came after the command of Dawa Party withdrew Maliki’s nomination after receiving a letter from the Marjeya.”

In response, Prime Minister Maliki gave a speech on August 10 in which he declaredhis intent to file a complaint at the Federal Court and accused the Presidency of violating the constitution on two counts: (1) for extending the period “of tasking the candidate of the largest bloc” with forming the government to August 10, 2014; and (2) for “purposefully violating” the constitution by not doing so on August 10, 2014. In his speech, Maliki stated that Iraq was facing a "dangerous" situation and urged Iraqis to be united against ISIS and “ISIS politicians,” a reference often used by SLA members to describe Maliki’s opposition. Maliki’s speech was preceded by the heavy deployment of the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) and Iraqi Special Operations Forces (ISOF) to securethe entrances to Baghdad and to the Green Zone at 10:30 pm local time, 90 minutes before Maliki’s speech. A number of streets are reportedto have been closed in addition to key bridges as security forces loyal to Maliki effectively instituted a state of emergency within the capital. An anonymous source from within the Green Zone stated that security forces had surrounded the Presidency’s headquarters, in an apparent attempt to coerce the president to declare the SLA the largest block in order to secure Maliki’s election to a third term.

This show of force was preceded by a gathering of Maliki supporters on August 9 who demonstrated in support of a third term in central Baghdad, a move likely orchestrated by Maliki in order to leverage popular support as a means for his nomination rather than consensus within the NA. It was also preceded by a message reportedlysent from Maliki to Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani in which the former expressed his discontent regarding the latter’s stance and called for him not to intervene in politics.

Reactions to the ISF Deployment

Within Iraq

Leaders in the Dawa Party, the SLA, and SLA member Haider al-Abadi, reported earlier to be a likely candidate for the premiership, downplayed the heavy ISF deployment. SLA leaders commented that demonstrators will fill the streets of Baghdad until PM Maliki is allowed to form a government, suggesting that the military mobilization is a show of force rather than a coup. Al-Abadi also stated on his Twitter account that the deadline remained extended until 3:00 pm Monday afternoon. Further reporting indicated that the National Alliance has formally nominatedal-Abadi for the Premiership.

Multiple reports of military and police forces blocking roads leading to Firdos Square in Baghdad confirm the presence and protection of pro-Maliki demonstrations. The Baghdad Operations Command also stated that the mobilization was designed to support “constitutionally guaranteed” demonstrations. A reporter on the ground tweeted that demonstrators were brought into the square on military trucks. The reaction of the National Alliance to these demonstrations and Maliki’s show of force in light of an alternate nomination will be important to watch.

US Stance:

In an early response to the crisis, State Dept. spokeswoman Jen Psaki stated: “We reject any effort to achieve outcomes through coercion or manipulation of the constitutional or judicial process," adding that the U.S. “stands ready to support a new and inclusive government, particularly in the fight against” ISIS. The rejection of this policy by Maliki calls into question how the U.S. will act in support of the ISF in the midst of Iraq’s security crisis. Secretary Kerry stated on August 11 that Maliki’s move to abjure political process has the potential to sever international support to Iraq. The main issue on the table now is not whether Iraq forms a unity government despite this weekend’s reverberations; but rather, how Maliki will use the security forces that are currently responding to his call to arms. At this time, it appears that Maliki is using the mobilization of loyal forces in Baghdad as a show of force and protection for pro-Maliki demonstrators. Nevertheless, it remains to be seen whether Maliki will attempt to escalate the use of force to seize control of Iraq’s government now that a premier has been named.

What ISW is watching

Intra-Shia confrontation:

Although Maliki has control over the ISF and the ISOF, the Sadrsits and ISCI might use their strong presence in the street and launch demonstrations in areas such as Sadr City, Hurriya, Shula, Khadhimiya, Karrada, and Jadiriya. In anticipation of such demonstrations, some ISOF and ISF were deployedto the eastern part of Baghdad. A government crackdown on anti-Maliki demonstrations will almost certainly initiate heavy intra-Shia clashes and create chaos in the capital. Such demonstrations tookplace in March 2014 when hundreds of Sadrist supporters took out to the street and demonstrated against Maliki after he criticized Sadr on TV. At the time, Sadr mitigated the situation by calling on his supporters to stop the demonstrations. Initial signs of potential fractures within the ISF surfaced on that occasion when ISF members participated in the demonstrations, but no violent clashes took place. The response of Sadrist and ISCI supporters within the ISF will be important to watch as the current political contest unfolds.

Another theme would be the organization of a pro-Maliki demonstration in response where Maliki supporters protected by the ISF protest against the President and demand the nomination of Maliki as the Prime Minister. Pro-Maliki protests secured by the ISF occurred in Baghdad on Saturday, August 9 and continued on Sunday, August 10. Baghdad is not the only province where intra-Shia confrontations might take place, cities where major Shia shrines are located like Najaf and Karbala are important to watch as well. It is also important to watch for violence in Samarra where the ISF, Iranians, and many militias are co-located.

ISF/CTS deployment

These events are taking place at a time where many elite CTS and ISF units are deployed over many fronts to counter an existential threat by ISIS. A reallocation of the ISF in order to back Maliki in Baghdad would have dire consequences on the security posture where these units might be redeployed from. 

The whereabouts of the President

The surrounding of the President’s headquarters by the ISF is a worrisome development and it will be important to watch to what extent Maliki will use force to pressure the president to task the SLA with forming the government.

ISF/Peshmerga security cooperation

It is also critical to watch if Maliki will use the recent cooperation and support provide by Baghdad to the KRG as leverage to pressure the Kurds to support him in return for providing weapon supplies and IA Aviation support to counter an ISIS threat  near Arbil.

ISIS and other anti-government armed groups

If a chaos engulfs the capitol due to intra-Shia violence, ISIS will likely capitalize on the softened defenses that will likely be a result of the violence in order to conduct spectacular attacks in the capitol where it could not do so recently due to the heavy deployment of ISF and Iraqi Shia militias in and around Baghdad.


The escalation of force in order to affect the outcome of Iraq’s government formation compromises political solutions that are necessary prerequisited for maintaining a unified Iraq and a unified Iraqi security response to ISIS. The use of force to pursue alternate aims severely elevates the vulnerability of Baghdad to attacks by ISIS and other anti-government forces. Maliki is currently pursuing the most dangerous course of action for Iraq in light of the possibility of peaceful succession by a new Prime Minister, Haider al-Abadi. Despite the extreme nature of this outcome, it is not likely that Maliki will relinquish power peacefully. Today will be decisive for Iraq’s political recovery, and therefore for the future of Iraqi security solutions to the ISIS threat.

Friday, August 8, 2014

Iraq Situation Report: August 8, 2014

by the ISW Iraq Team and Lauren Squires

Control of Terrain in Iraq: August 8, 2014

by ISW Iraq Team, Lauren Squires, and Jennifer Cafarella

ISIS Works to Merge its Northern Front across Iraq and Syria

By Jennifer Cafarella

Recent ISIS operations in Hasaka and Ninewa provinces indicate that ISIS has begun to further merge its northern battlefronts across the Syrian-Iraq border. ISIS is eradicating pockets of resistance that fall within the territory ISIS seeks to claim for its Caliphate, including the Iraqi city of Sinjar near the border in Ninewa province. ISIS seized the city of Sinjar on August 3, 2014 despite the protection of the Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga forces, roughly 100 km east of Hasaka city, the provincial capital of the adjacent Syrian province. ISIS operations in these Northern provinces are likely linked, and the recent ISIS offensive in northern Iraq must be evaluated through a cross-border lens. Since mid-July ISIS has seized control of the Regiment 121 Artillery Base in Hasaka Province in addition to the Division 17 and Brigade 93 Bases in ar-Raqqa Province. ISIS forces also appear to be mobilizing to seize the final base in ar-Raqqa, the Tabqa Military Airbase. Significantly, these operations have proceeded in tandem with a campaign to remove internal threats to the Caliphate posed by isolated Syrian regime bases in ar-Raqqa province, and it appears ISIS is quickly moving toward a successful consolidation and hardening of its exterior borders in Northern Syria.

Hasaka Province

Since ISIS seized control of Mosul on June 10, ISIS has successfully merged its southern Deir ez-Zour and Anbar systems. Syria’s northeastern Hasaka Province is becoming a primary battleground as ISIS continues to consolidate its gains in Iraq and Syria and begins to merge its Hasaka and Ninewa areas of operation. Hasaka hosts important logistical lines of communication that connect ISIS strongholds in ar-Raqqa to recent ISIS gains in Ninewa, making Hasaka a significant front for ISIS operational planning. The province is also home to a large portion of Syria’s oil fields, a valuable strategic asset that ISIS has fought to control elsewhere in Syria. The main body of the Syrian opposition is largely absent from the province, where a low regime footprint and a large Kurdish population render it an undesirable area for most counter-regime forces in the Syrian opposition.[1]While Syrian Kurds in northern Syria declared their independence from the central government in the fall of 2013, they nonetheless cooperate at local levels with regime forces for purposes of social control.

The military arm of the de-facto independent Kurdish PYD party, the YPG, is in control of much of the province’s countryside and capitalizes on local support from Christian and Arab tribal elements to defend against ISIS incursions. The Kurdish Asayish security forces in charge of maintaining control inside city centers also coordinate locally with the regime’s NDF militias, which include units of Arab tribesmen from the al-Sharabiyin and al-Tay tribes in addition to elements of Christian militias. At the time of the fall of Mosul, the Syrian regime maintained control of the Qamishli airport and three hardened military bases throughout the province in addition to maintaining internal control within the major cities of Hasaka and Qamishli. The provincial capital of Hasaka City has remained under joint control between Syrian regime and Kurdish forces, each of which maintain control over different neighborhoods with coordination to ensure service provision and quality of life within the city.

Rather than targeting these regime enclaves, ISIS operations within the province throughout June and early July were largely directed against YPG forces in the countryside surrounding the cities of Ras al-Ayn and Qamishli on the Turkish border. In these zones, small units of ISIS fighters operating in strategically located villages regularly contested terrain held by Kurdish YPG forces in the countryside and maintained limited pressure on regime and YPG resupply lines to Hasaka city. ISIS forces also leveraged support from local Arab tribal elements, including the Sharabia tribe, a local rival to the YPG-allied Shaamar tribe. The most significant ISIS stronghold in the province’s northern countryside is located at Tel Hamis deep within the countryside northeast of Hasaka City, which ISIS assumed firm control after successfully repulsing an attempt by the YPG to seize the village in early January 2014. South of the city, it is assessed that the ISIS stronghold at ash-Shaddadi continues to serve as a command headquarters for ISIS forces throughout eastern Syria in addition to facilitating cross-border lines of communication and transit into Iraq’s Ninewa province.

This ISIS activity in the Hasaka countryside focused on maintaining lines of communication that traverse the province in addition to creating sufficient operating room for ISIS forces to mobilize on other fronts. However, ISIS forces also conducted initial shaping operations to isolate Hasaka city from its flow of supplies from Qamishli to the north. ISIS targeted the areas surrounding Qamishli Airport with Grad rockets and conducted kidnappings of several bus passengers on the Hasaka-Qamishli road in late June. ISIS forces also continued to contest the towns of Tal Ma’arof, Kharab al-A’skar, and Tel Alo in the YPG-controlled countryside south of Qamishli throughout July. Interdicting a second major supply line to Hasaka City, ISIS has pressured YPG forces along the Ras al-Ayn – Hasaka road, targeting YPG forces in the vicinity of Tel Tamir, a town strategically located at the junction of two of the province’s major highways. An IED detonated in a car along the road between Hasaka City and Tel Tamir on July 3, killing a PYD council member and a member of the town’s Popular Council. In addition, an ISIS SVBIED reportedly disguised as a truck bringing supplies to the area targeted a YPG camp just northwest of Tel Tamir on the road to Ras al-Ayn on July 13, killing eight. While limited in scope, these attacks in the weeks prior to the attack on Sinjar demonstrate the ability of ISIS to penetrate deep into YPG-controlled territory in zones likely marked for future incorporation into the Islamic State.

ISIS advances against critical regime installations

ISIS significantly escalated attacks against the Syrian regime throughout much of northeastern Syria beginning in mid-July. ISIS forces attacked regime positions in Deir ez-Zour city and launched a significant offensive against the al-Sha’er gas field in the Homs desert in central Syria on July 16. While the regime was ultimately able to recapture the gas field, the ISIS attack served to test regime responses and to force a regime deployment of significant reinforcements to an area highly isolated from other critical fronts. This feint by ISIS was likely calculated to soften regime targets elsewhere in Syria. Three days after the regime launched an offensive to regain control of the gas field, ISIS began a highly successful campaign against regime bases throughout Northern Syria. These include the Regiment 121 Artillery base in Hasaka Province in addition to the Division 17 and Brigade 93 bases in ar-Raqqa Province, with indicators of an upcoming ISIS attack to seize the Tabqa Military Airbase. The ISIS seizure of three regime military bases in Northern Syria serves to set the stage for ISIS forces in Hasaka and ar-Raqqa to achieve territorial continuity across northern Syria after the elimination of internal threats to the borders of the Caliphate.


ISIS forces launched an attack to seize control of the Division 17 base just north of ar-Raqqa city on July 23. Two SVBIEDs were detonated at the entrance to the base, allowing ISIS fighters to advance into southern portions of the base. While there were reports that these VBIEDs detonated shy of their targets, the ISIS advance was nonetheless successful, and ISIS fighters immediately posted a video from inside the military housing facility inside the base. After the initial advance, ISIS beheaded six regime soldiers and displayed their severed heads near the al-Na’im roundabout within ar-Raqqa city. ISIS’s Wilayat ar-Raqqa account announced a curfew in ar-Raqqa on July 24, allegedly so that ISIS could hunt down regime forces who had escaped into the city. Regime forces immediately launched over 14 airstrikes against ar-Raqqa and Tabqa cities as helicopter gunships targeted ISIS positions, likely to provide cover for a large-scale regime withdrawal. Regime forces withdrew northward toward the al-Rayhat village, however ISIS ambushed a contingent of the withdrawing forces in the town of Abu Sharib, capturing and executing 50 regime soldiers on July 25. A total of 300 soldiers are reported to have successfully withdrawn to al-Rayhat, while additional hundreds relocated to the Division 93 base in Ayn Isa, roughly 40 km south of Tel Abyad on the Turkish border. “Tens” of soldiers are also reported to have reached the Tabqa military airbase southwest of ar-Raqqa city. The regime also launched two scud missiles against ISIS positions in ar-Raqqa from the Brigade 155 base in Qalamoun, and SOHR reported that a regime convoy supported by both fixed and rotary wing aircraft was deployed from al-Salamia to ar-Raqqa on July 25.

ISIS fighters seized the entirety of ar-Raqqa’s 17th Division Base on July 25 following the full withdrawal of the regime forces that had remained to provide cover. ISIS social media accounts in ar-Raqqa posted dozens of pictures of seized equipment as well as pictures of fighters sleeping and praying inside the base. 105 regime fighters, including at least 19 officers, were reportedly killed during the assault, while more than 140 soldiers are still missing. General Salim Hassoun and General Jihad Habib al-Qadda are rumored to be among those killed. Following a short period of consolidation in ar-Raqqa, ISIS forces launched an offensive to capture the Brigade 93 base north of ar-Raqqa city near the village of Ayn Issa. ISIS reportedly ordered the residents of villages surrounding the base to evacuate the area on July 29. A full ISIS offensive against the base was declared by the ISIS Wilayat ar-Raqqa on August 5, immediately followed by the detonation of three SVBIEDs against the base and a swift ISIS seizure of much of the base. SOHR reported that 15 ISIS fighters and 36 regime soldiers were killed, some of which were symbolically beheaded by ISIS after the attack. By August 8, ISIS forces gained full control of the base and regime forces were reported to have pulled back towart the Tabqa military airport in addition to villages west of the fallen Brigade 93 base. At the time of writing, ISIS forces appear to be mobilizing its forces and equipment to storm the Taqba base, the last regime stronghold in ar-Raqqa province.


In response to the initial ISIS escalation in Deir ez-Zour and the Homs Desert in mid-July, the Syrian regime increased its pressure against ISIS positions in Southern Hasaka Province, targeting areas controlled by ISIS south of Hasaka city, such as the al-Khair silos and the Karama village. Likely in retaliation for this increase in regime pressure on ISIS positions, two IEDs exploded in Hasaka City on July 22, one in a store near the al-Qahira Cinema and one targeting a store selling alcohol on al-Ahram street, killing a total of seven. These explosions were a notable departure from the city’s relative calm throughout the war and predicated a significant ISIS escalation against fortified regime infrastructure south of the city. Hours after launching a the offensive against the Division 17 military base north of ar-Raqqa City, ISIS fighters attacked the Regiment 121 artillery base in Malabiah south of Hasaka City. In response, the regime immediately closed all roads leading into the city, instituted a curfew, and conducted air raids around the base. However, regime forces were unable to repel the attacking ISIS forces, which received reinforcements on July 24.

Simultaneous attacks against other regime installations in the province neutralized the regime’s ability to reinforce the base and prevented an immediate counterattack against the ISIS rear. While also attacking the “Kawkab” military base east of the city, ISIS deployed three SVESTS against a military operations center within the city, reportedly by disguising the suicide bombers in NDF uniforms. A leading member of the Ba’ath party named Hanna Atalla was reportedly killed in the attack. Effectively severing the regime resupply line from Qamishli ISIS forces seized the town of Safiya, located 10 km north of Hasaka City at a critical juncture in the two Qamishli-Hasaka highways. Farther north, a number of explosions occurred in Qamishli city: first, a large explosion targeted the local headquarters of military intelligence on al-Wahda Street. Syrian state news outlet SANA also reported the detonation of second explosive device planted in the city’s southern al-Tay neighborhood, and ISIS reportedly targeted a bus transporting regime forces with a stun grenade.

Finally, as fighting in the Regiment 121 base continued, an ISIS SVBIED detonated at the Panorama checkpoint at the southern entrance to Hasaka city on July 26 amidst clashes in the area between ISIS and YPG fighters. The SVBIED is likely to have hindered the regime’s ability to reinforce the Regiment 121 base, and the ISIS Wilayat Baraka (Hasaka) twitter account subsequently claimed to have successfully halted a regime military convoy at the checkpoint. After three days of clashes, ISIS seized full control of the base on July 27. A prominent NDF commander named Abdul-Samad al-Nazzal was reportedly killed during the fighting in addition to General Miziad Salameh, the commander of Regiment 121. Following the full seizure of the base, ISIS released pictures purporting to document a large quantity of heavy weaponry seized from within the base, including at least four howitzers. ISIS social media accounts also released a video tour of the base and the captured military equipment.

While rumors initially emerged that regime forces withdrew from the city itself in order to reinforce key remaining military bases elsewhere in the province, it appears the regime instead consolidated control of its own critical  infrastructure within the city, such as water pumping stations and jails, with the help of security forces and the NDF, while possibly transferring further control of certain neighborhoods to Kurdish forces. An official PYD account reassured civilians that Kurdish forces maintained full control over the administration of Kurdish areas of the city, and the YPG conducted a military parade in the Salhiya neighborhood in a show of strength on July 31. While fighting in the city’s southern countryside initially continued, regime forces claim to have consolidated control of the southern outskirts of the city amidst a reported ISIS withdrawal into its own territory deeper south of the city. Clashes between regime forces and ISIS in the village of Sabe Sekor southeast of the city on July 31 indicate that the ISIS forces that attacked the Kawkab military base likely withdrew southeast toward the Iraqi border. A primary transit route for ISIS fighters between Iraq and Syria, this zone is likely a staging area for ISIS forces operating in the Jazeera desert, and could have been the area from which ISIS forces mobilized in the August 3 attack on Sinjar.

In addition, some ISIS forces withdrew west of the city, forcing a civilian relocation from the western al-Neshwa area of the city due to heavy ISIS bombardment to cover its retreating forces. Further clashes erupted on August 5 between gunmen and YPG fighters near al-Bairuti Bridge at the northern entrance to the southern Gweran neighborhood of Hasaka city after a military convoy of YPG fighters attempted to enter the neighborhood  and make arrests. It is possible this altercation was the result of the distribution of an August 4 ISIS statement that called for residents in Syria’s northeast region to halt their support for the YPG and foreshadowed an impending ISIS assault upon Hasaka city. Reports have emerged that the regime is considering relocating the official administration of Hasaka province to the city of Qamishli amidst fears of a full ISIS offensive against the city, and negotiations are reportedly ongoing over the formation of a joint Governing Council for the city that could facilitate a regime drawdown.

The ISIS main effort against the Regiment 121 Artillery Base is likely to have deployed from the ISIS stronghold of al-Shadadi in southern Hasaka Province, however the supporting efforts in the cities of Hasaka and Qamishli were likely staged from elsewhere within the province, possibly the ISIS stronghold in Tel Hamis. Pro-ISIS activists posted on Twitter that the combined offensives in ar-Raqqa and Hasaka involved a total of 1,400 fighters: 600 in ar-Raqqa and 800 in Hasaka, although this is impossible to verify. An ISIS mobilization near Ras al-Ayn was reported by SOHR on July 17, and it is possible that these forces were integrated into the offensive against Hasaka City. The requirements for consolidating control in Deir ez-Zour in addition to the simultaneous escalation in ar-Raqqa province makes it unlikely that the ISIS force in Hasaka drew manpower from elsewhere within Syria. It is equally unlikely that ISIS forces were reallocated from Iraq, due to the requirements to mount the significant escalation against the Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga on August 3. Therefore, it is assessed that ISIS did not relieve other positions within either theatre in order to conduct this operation.

The seizure of these three regime bases removed obstacles for ISIS freedom of movement within the areas of operation south of Hasaka city and north of ar-Raqqa city. ISIS will likely attempt to seize the city of Hasaka itself in order to successfully link these two systems, as the major highways that allow for transit northwest into ar-Raqqa province pass through the city’s outskirts.  While ISIS will likely continue to pressure regime and YPG supply lines through Qamishli, an attack against the city itself is unlikely in the near term. The city’s distance from current ISIS lines of communication makes it an less likely objective, and its importance to both the YPG and the regime will ensure stiff resistance and provide a strong deterrence against an ISIS attack. 


While shifting to a consolidation phase in Hasaka, ISIS forces in Iraq’s Ninewa province attacked the isolated Kurdish stronghold of Sinjar on August 3, successfully forcing a tactical retreat by Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga forces. The assault appears to have been conducted by the ISIS Wilayat Ninewa force, likely the same force that seized the city of Mosul on June 10. However, testament to the cross-border nature of the full ISIS force in this area, ISIS’s Syrian Wilayat al-Baraka (Hasaka) claimed to have sent fighters to participate in a subsequent attack against the village of Khan Suwwar north of the Sinjar mountains. The seizure of Sinjar represents a linked effort to neutralize threats to the ISIS interior, successfully removing a key obstacle to the territorial integrity linking its Hasaka and Ninewa Wilayats. If ISIS continues to expand in northern Iraq, ISIS forces may turn northward to the oil fields in Syria’s Hasaka province after securing and hardening the current borders of its Caliphate. The fields remain under YPG control, and are likely to be heavily defended by both YPG and local tribal elements. ISIS forces to date have largely refrained from mounting a meaningful challenge to this control, as the fields present a hardened target with less immediate implications for the consolidation of the Caliphate. However, a two-front offensive against Hasaka’s northeast launched from the ISIS stronghold of Tel Hamis in Hasaka and ISIS positions within Ninewa province may have sufficient momentum to meaningfully challenge the YPG for control of the oil infrastructure. As such, a campaign into northeastern Hasaka is a possible future course of action if ISIS is able to secure and harden the current borders of its Caliphate.

Following the fall of Sinjar, Syrian Kurdish YPG forces moved in to control the Iraqi side of the Yarubiya border crossing and to counter an ISIS advance against the nearby Iraqi town of Rabia. According to a statement released by the YPG General Command, 700 Peshmerga fighters initially retreated into Syrian territory following the ISIS assault on Sinjar, where some are reported to have received medical treatment by Kurdish doctors. In the statement the YPG also committed to cooperating at the “highest levels” with the Peshmerga in order to counter the ISIS assault. In addition, YPG forces have opened routes into Kurdish territory in Hasaka Province for refugees fleeingfrom Sinjar. Co-chairman of the PYD Salih Muslim confirmed YPG involvement in Iraq, stating during a telephone interview that the forced withdrawal of the Peshmerga from Sinjar prompted the YPG to cross the border “to support and assist” the Peshmerga forces. He also stated that YPG forces crossed the border from several locations, likely in the effort to manage the flow of refugees. On August 4, a redeployment of Peshmerga forces to the border allowed the combined Kurdish forces to successfully regain control of the border crossing after clashes with ISIS. In addition, YPG and Peshmerga forces continue to contest ISIS positions on the nearby outskirts of Rabia. According to the head of the YPG’s information center, YPG forces have conducted five successful operations against ISIS forces in Ninewa province and participated in attacks by the Peshmerga against ISIS forces in Zumar and Kaskie in addition to Rabia.

The YPG defense of Iraqi Kurds and Yezidis against ISIS is the first case of YPG deployment outside of Syrian territory. The Syrian PYD had previously attempted and failed to reach an agreement with the Iraqi Kurdish National Council (KNC) to create joint de-facto administrations in northern Syria that could have provided for military cooperation between the two bodies. Without the support of the president of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in Iraq Mahmoud Barzani, the PYD was forced to negotiate local settlements with Christian and Arab groups in order to secure its territory. This balancing within northern Syria is unlikely to change in the wake of the fall of Sinjar and the deployment of the YPG into Iraqi territory. While local support to the Peshmerga near the Syrian-Iraqi border to deter further ISIS advances in this zone is in the interest of the YPG, Syria will undoubtedly remain its primary focus.

Further, sources of local support to the YPG within Syria will prove increasingly crucial if ISIS continues to advance within Hasaka province. Testament to the importance of local relationships for continued YPG control in the province, in late July the PYD appointed Humaydi Dahmam al-Assi al Jarba, a member of the Shammar tribe and a cousin of former Syrian Coalition chief Ahmad Jarba, as co-governor of Hasaka Province. The Shammar tribe has historically facilitated YPG operations against ISIS, and was instrumental in the YPG’s ability to reinforce the Yarubiya border crossing and to secure YPG control of Hasaka’s oil fields after the fall of Mosul. The deepening of these ties is an indicator of the continued importance of local Syrian alliances within the Kurdish war effort against ISIS. As ISIS continues to push forward with its campaign in Northern Iraq and Syria, the continued ability of the YPG and the Peshmerga to continue mount successful resistance will be a limiting factor in the ISIS advance.


Through a significant escalation against the Syrian regime and the Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga beginning in mid-July, ISIS forces have made large advances in a campaign to consolidate internal control within the Caliphate. The Syrian regime’s Regiment 121, Division 17, and Brigade 93 military bases have fallen to ISIS, and indicators have emerged of an upcoming ISIS attack against the Tabqa military airbase southwest of ar-Raqqa City. ISIS has also seized the Peshmerga stronghold at Sinjar in the west of Iraq’s Ninewa Province, successfully consolidating its internal line of control across the Jazeera desert into Syria. The breath of these linked offensives across Iraq and Syria illustrate the ISIS priority objective of establishing territorial integrity for the Caliphate, and are evidence of the large military capacity ISIS still possesses nearly two months after the fall of Mosul.

In order to achieve its goal of establishing a functional, viable state ISIS must continue to leverage its military capabilities to consolidate its interior lines across Iraq and Syria and form a set of identifiable and defensible borders. Eliminating interior vulnerabilities is a key component of this effort and is likely to remain a primary objective for the ISIS military campaign in ensuing weeks. The victories in ar-Raqqa, Hasaka, and Ninewa suggests that ISIS operational objectives prioritize setting the stage for the consolidation of control over logistical lines of communication from the Iraqi border and the current operational zone in southern Hasaka to strongholds in ar-Raqqa province in order to secure freedom of movement between currently separate systems. As continued military successes from increasingly unified theatres of operation fuel the ISIS war machine, a hardened ISIS exterior line is likely to allow ISIS forces to pursue further expansion.

[1] An initial Jabhat al-Nusra (JN) and Ahrar al-Sham (HASI) footprint in villages near the Syrian-Iraqi border challenged the YPG within the Hasaka countryside, but was largely replaced in early 2014 by an ISIS threat as the JN-ISIS schism took hold and prompted a JN and HASI withdrawal to the west.