Islamic State retakes Baiji after Iraqi forces withdraw

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An Islamic State fighter removes an Iraqi flag from a government building. Photo released by the Islamic State.

The Islamic State has retaken control of the central Iraqi city of Baiji after the Iraqi military ordered its forces to retreat to the nearby refinery. Iraqi forces withdrew yesterday just one month after taking the city from the Islamic State with the help of Iranian-backed Shiite militias.

“Top army commanders ordered troops to leave the city and take positions inside the refinery, which was given priority. They knew staying inside Baiji would help Islamic State to drag the army into a war of attrition,” an unnamed Iraqi Army major told Reuters.

Local policemen and tribal militias fought the Islamic State for five days without the support of the Iraqi military before abandoning the city. The lightly armed forces, which withstood mortar and sniper fire from jihadist fighters besieging Baiji, requested help from the Iraqi military but were denied assistance.

The Islamic State touted this latest victory in the central Iraqi province of Salahaddin by posting a series of photographs on the Internet. The photos showed captured and destroyed armored vehicles, including US-made M1 tanks, M113 armored personnel vehicles, and Humvees. Islamic State fighters also siezed weapons and ammunition that were abandoned by fleeing Iraqi forces. The jihadist group’s fighters are also shown patrolling the streets of Baiji and standing outside of government buildings.

The city was captured in mid-June during the Islamic State’s lightning offensive that also saw Mosul, Tikrit, and other cities and towns in the provinces of Ninewa, Salahaddin, Diyala, and Anbar fall under the jihadist group’s control.

Baiji, which also hosts Iraq’s largest oil refinery, was under the control of the Islamic State up until mid-November, when Iraqi forces and sponsored Shiite militias, such as Asaib al Haq, or or the League of the Righteous, succeeded in retaking the city. The Iraqi military touted the retaking of Baiji, and claimed that it killed Ala Burhan al Tikriti, an Islamic State commander who was responsible for massacring hundreds of Iraqi troops at Camp Speicher, a base outside of Tikrit, over the summer. [See LWJ report, Iraqi forces, Iranian-supported militias report success in Baiji.]

The loss of Baiji is a major setback for the Iraqi military, which has made a push to retake terrain lost to the Islamic State in mid-June. Over the fall, Iraqi forces ejected the jihadist group from Jurf al Sakhar in northern Babil province, Amerli in Salahaddin, and from several towns northern Iraq that were governed by the Kurds. Despite these gains, the Islamic State took control of some towns near Samarra and overran a unit from the Badr Brigade, another Shiite militia supported by Iran, during the same period.

The Islamic State controls large areas of Iraq and neighboring Syria despite airstrikes by the US and allied countries. The US began its air campaign against the jihadist group in Iraq on Aug. 7, and in Syria on Sept. 22. While the airstrikes have helped Iraqi forces regain some ground, the Islamic State has taken control of other areas, including Hit in Anbar.

Photographs released by the Islamic State from the recent fighting in Baiji:

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Bill Roggio is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Editor of The Long War Journal. Caleb Weiss is an intern at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a contributor to The Long War Journal.

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4 Comments

  • JFlood says:

    How could the loss of Baiji be considered a major setback for the Iraqi Military if they withdrew and refused to defend it?

  • m3fd2002 says:

    Because, they didn’t withdraw voluntarily. They were blasted out. The ISF is still leaving significant ordinance in the field (M1 above) after being routed. That’s with Western air assets above. Frankly, I could care less. How long will the US be there to provide air cover for the Mahdi militia, Hezbollah, and Iranian Pasdaran? Think about it, how convoluted this is.

  • David Ryan says:

    There are now IS fighters sleeping where I slept, eating where I ate, driving where I drove. As we sat in Bayji 6 years ago, joked that after we left we would see the city fall to Iran on CNN. We did this because we knew that what we were doing was not sustainable, even then. It is maddening to watch.

  • Maureen says:

    Why aren’t we hearing more about what is going on? Outside of this publication, I have to go to British papers to find out anything.

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