The lightning advance of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Sham and its allies from Mosul to the outskirts of Samarra, as well as its capture of several towns in eastern Diyala, all over the course of several days, appears to be part of a greater strategy to surround the capital of Baghdad before laying siege to it. This plan, to take over the “belt” region outside of Baghdad and cut off the capital, appears to be the same strategy used by the ISIS’ predecessor back in 2006.
The 2006 plan, which was drawn up by the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), the forerunner of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Sham (ISIS), was discovered after the US found a crude map on the body of Abu Musab al Zarqawi, al Qaeda in Iraq’s leader who was killed by US forces in Baqubah in June 2006. The “Baghdad belts” map was released by Multinational Forces-Iraq during its offensive to liberate vast areas under al Qaeda/ISI control in 2007 and 2008.
Zarqawi’s plan was to seize control of the outer provinces and Baghdad’s belts, or key areas surrounding the capital. The ISI would then use its bases in the belts to control access to Baghdad and funnel money, weapons, car bombs, and fighters into the city. The ISI also planned to strangle the US helicopter air lanes by emplacing anti-aircraft cells along known routes in the belts areas around Baghdad.
In the ISI’s 2006 plan, the Baghdad belts were divided into five regions: the “Southern Belt,” which included northern Babil and southern Diyala provinces; the “Western belt,” which included eastern Anbar province and the Thar Thar area; the “Northern belt,” which included southern Salahaddin province and cities such as Taji; the “Diyala belt,” which included Baqubah and Khalis; and the “Eastern belt,” which included the rural areas east of Baghdad.
Watching the ISIS’ operations today, it appears the group is attempting to implement a strategy which is very similar, if not identical, to the previous one. This should come as no surprise; Nasser al Din Allah Abu Suleiman, ISIS’ current war minister, was a leader in al Qaeda in Iraq/ISI when the Baghdad belt strategy was implemented. Suleiman was appointed by al Qaeda in May 2010 to serve as the terror group’s top military commander after his predecessor, Abu Ayyub al Masri, was killed in a raid by Iraqi and US forces in April 2010.
US intelligence officials contacted by the Long War Journal who have extensive experience with al Qaeda in Iraq and the campaign to dislodge the group that began in 2007 said they believe the ISIS has dusted off its old plans to encircle Baghdad.
ISIS marches to the Baghdad belt
ISIS took the first step at the beginning of the year when it seized control of Fallujah and most of Anbar province. ISIS advanced to the outskirts of western Baghdad in March and April, when it captured Karma and Abu Ghraib.
After taking control of most of Anbar, ISIS launched a series of bombings and attacks in northern Babil province and southern Baghdad. The town of Jurf Al Sakhar is said to have fallen under ISIS control. The towns of Musayyib, Yusufiyah, Mahmoudiyah, Iskandariyah and Latifiyah in the so-called “triangle of death” area south of Baghdad have seen an uptick in attacks. These areas, which include a significant Sunni minority, sit along the fault line with Sunni and Shia, and were controlled by the ISI prior to the US surge in 2007.
ISIS’ control of Anbar as well as eastern areas in neighboring Syria allowed it to set its sights on northern, central, and eastern Iraq. Over the past week ISIS forces, backed by allied groups such as Ansar al Islam, Jaish Muhammad, and even the Baathist-led Army of the Men of the Naqshbandi Order, seized control of Mosul and then swept southward, taking over Tikrit, Bayji, and several areas outside of Kirkuk before the southward advance was halted at Samarra.
ISIS forces also pressed into eastern Diyala province, capturing villages and towns in the Hamrin Mountains as well as Jalula and Saadiyah, and are threatening to move into Khalis and Baqubah.
As ISIS and allied forces moved southward, units also attacked along the highway between Samarra and Baghdad. The town of Dhuluiyah, just east of Balad, fell to ISIS units, while heavy fighting was reported in Taji, a city on the outskirts of Baghdad. Dhuluiyah was retaken by Iraqi forces on June 13.
Dislodging ISIS will be a difficult task
The ISIS advance toward Baghdad may be temporarily held off as the government rallies its remaining security forces and Shia militias organize for the upcoming battle. But at the least, ISIS should be able to take control of some Sunni neighborhoods in Baghdad and wreak havoc on the city with IEDs, ambushes, single suicide attacks, and suicide assaults that target civilians, the government, security forces, and foreign installations. Additionally, the brutal sectarian slaughter of Sunni and Shia alike that punctuated the violence in Baghdad from 2005 to 2007 is likely to return as Shia militias and ISIS fighters roam the streets.
Even if Iraqi forces are able to keep the ISIS from fully taking Baghdad and areas south, it is unlikely the beleaguered military and police forces will be able to retake the areas under ISIS control in the north and west without significant external support, as well as the support of the Kurds.
The ISIS and its allies are in a position today that closely resembles the ISI’s position prior to the US surge back in early 2007. More than 130,000 US troops, partnered with the Sunni Awakening formations and Iraqi security forces numbering in the hundreds of thousands, were required to clear Anbar, Salahaddin, Diyala, Ninewa, Baghdad, and the “triangle of death.” The concurrent operations took more than a year, and were supported by the US Air Force, US Army aviation brigades, and US special operations raids that targeted the ISI’s command and control, training camps, and bases, as well as its IED and suicide bomb factories.
Today, the Iraqis have no US forces on the ground to support them, US air power is absent, the Awakening is scattered and in disarray, and the Iraqi military has been humiliated while surrendering or retreating during the jihadists’ campaign from Mosul to the outskirts of Baghdad. The US government has indicated that it will not deploy US soldiers in Iraq, either on the ground or at airbases to conduct air operations.
ISIS is advancing boldly in the looming security vacuum left by the collapse of the Iraqi security forces and the West’s refusal to recommit forces to stabilize Iraq. This has rendered the country vulnerable to further incursions by al Qaeda-linked jihadists as well as intervention by interested neighbors such as Iran. Overt Iranian intervention in Iraq would likely lead any Sunnis still loyal to the government to side with ISIS and its allies, and would ensure that Iraq would slide even closer to a full-blown civil war, and risk a wider war throughout the Middle East.