Analysis: ISIS, allies reviving ‘Baghdad belts’ battle plan

Iraqi and Syrian towns and cities seized by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Sham. Map created by The Long War Journal. Click to view larger map.

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.

Fouzi Khalid Abdullah al Awda.

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.

Bill Roggio is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Editor of FDD's Long War Journal.

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  • . says:

    The last two paragraphs sum it all up.

  • Eric says:

    Yes. That pretty much sums it up, Bill. Here we are at last, with ISIS taking and holding territory, and the civil war that will split Iraq is now at hand, and Iranian armored brigades are already fighting ISIS in Diyala and in Salahuddin. Whatever the US does now, it will not hold back the tide of history. The Middle East has been brought to a time of reckoning. We have a regional war shaping up. An Armageddon.
    I wish to convey a way of looking at all this that is more re-assuring. Imagine a toilet the size of the Levant – flushing.
    7 trillion dollars in global GDP. Down the drain.
    Energy Independence, anyone?

  • Joseph says:

    Yes, a regional war is close to being sparked. Perhaps even already sparked. Because of this, now is the time for a true push towards Energy Independence. Without being able to predict when the fighting will ever end, who will come out on top, or the United State’s involvement, Energy Independence will be a strategic necessity for when the fires are burning brightest.

  • Dan A says:

    If the Sunnis in Iraq want a repeat of 2006, they can have it….and it didn’t end well for them. We’ve seen this script before and it ends with mass graves courtesy of Shiite death squads. I imagine Sadr City is arming up as we speak, and Quds force members may already be on their way.
    What worries me is the capture of weapons, money, and release of prisoners. That could be a major problem on both sides of the border.

  • Bikebrains says:

    ” Iraqi military has been humiliated while surrendering or retreating ” The Iraqi military should be called the Chocolate Army, it melts when a slight amount of heat is applied.

  • El Bearsidente says:

    That was really only a matter of time. The surprise to me is that this is happening now and not in 5 years.
    Other than that, nope. Not surprised.
    On the long run ISIS will likely win, then Iran and Iraq will piss each other off, again, and they’ll be bombing each other once more. Can’t say I care too much.
    As long as they’re busy killing each other, they won’t get ideas of killing “infidels”.
    That’s how the Middle East works. There will be no wider war. There’s nothing for that. At best it can involve parts of Syria. That’s it. Rinse and repeat. Good riddance.
    The really big problem is China becoming more and more aggressive towards Japan and Vietnam.

  • m3fd2002 says:

    My perspective is that the Sunni rebellion can definitely take various neighborhoods in Baghdad proper. Will they be able to overtake the Green Zone and Sadr City, I doubt it. Regardless, they will be sending numerous bmp suicide bombers into key areas. This is becoming the “worst case scenario” as predicted by many pundits. With regards to this theater, I would be surprised if Obama and his security advisors commit ANY American assets to this scenario. It would be an admission of policy failure. They are reduced to HOPING that Maliki can pull his own skin from the fire. As I have stated before, we have at least 2.5 years of this doctrine. Side note: I’d like to ask all of the talking heads on the US airway: Instead of blaming anyone on the current situation, would you agree that this is at a minimum a bad situation. And if so, what will the current administration do about it.

  • Guido says:

    This should not be a surprise to anyone. Anyone who spent time there or has done some in-depth reading on Iraq could tell you their military and police forces are a pathetic joke and Iraq is a failed state. Only a strong man, like Saddam, could keep a state like that together. It should come as no surprise to anyone if Iraq ends up split between Sunnis, Shiites, and Kurds with Iran gobbling up as much as it can in the process.
    I’m wondering if ISIS hasn’t made a colossal error, since their gambit has given Iran the excuse to seek a land route to Syria. I also wonder if the Turks will be rolling into Kurdistan?
    After seeing how terrible Iraqi soldiers are, it’s a wonder they lasted this long.

  • Jeff Edelman says:

    It seems that ISIS became powerful suddenly. Why doesn’t this same thing happen in Syria. What does this ISIS power eruption mean to the zawahiri aq sect? It was not long ago that he was telling them to get back in the fold.

  • Dan says:

    Excellent post Bill, thanks. It is still confounding how quickly the ISIS were able to mobilise and advance relatively unchallenged. But this has led me to look at this from another angle. Since we already knew that the ISIS had conducted previous operations in the areas now allegedly under total control, is it not possible that they had minimal presence in those areas following the fall of Mosul, whom simply promoted a more overt presence, raised their flag over notable locations and made it look like they had taken full control? It is interesting that in places where the ISIS did not have previous successes, their alarmingly quick advance seemed to have halted. This could be an indication that the ISIS didn’t really step foot outside of areas of previous strength at all, they simply just showed themselves again, and portrayed a force that advanced extremely quickly across vast amounts of ground.
    Since Sheikh Risha of the Awakening Council has pledged support for the central government, and al Sistani has called the Shia population to arms, I think the greatest threat to Baghdad now is the possibility of another very volatile sectarian conflict. From local sources on the ground in the capital, it is teeming with ISF and a number of reactivated JAM fighters whom appear to be taking orders from Iranians. I would suspect those to be IRGC-QF.
    As with the similarities of Zarqawi’s intent to encircle and ensnare Baghdad, we are also looking at very similar conditions that set-off a major sectarian civil war that killed 1000’s. The future does not look bright for Iraq – again.

  • SIl Zil says:

    If we exclude Kurdistan and the ISIS occupied territory, we are left with an Iraq that is still large and 1/2 to two thirds Sunni. Mailiki has turned the issue of gaining back sovereignty of the occupied territory, into a Shiite uprising, and is recruiting from the biggest pool, the South Basrah region, bringing involvement from the single place that was untouched and safeguarded from the mess, and the source of 95% of Iraq’s income… Also what do you think will happen amongst the rest of the Sunni community in unoccupied Iraq? will they sit by weak & vulnerable to Shiite repercussions when they inevitably come? my guess is that mistrust & inside fighting will be inevitable, this is a tribute to Maliki’s monblock uni-dimensional political thinking, what a grave mistake for the US to allow his plot to stay albeit having lost the 2010 elections…(see Condolesa Rice’s immediate 2010 post election visit)
    The chance for Iraq to fight a civil war in a secular military fashion has disappeared, leaving limited options for the US as well. While the US cannot allow the forming of a Terrorist country, they cannot endorse Maliki in a de-facto sectarian war, and legacy will not allow staying on the sidelines either. I think this may be a best out of worst situation, and it may well be president Obama’s toughest challenge since he was elected…

  • Jack Brown says:

    I often wonder how much of this is due to Saudi grand strategy. For whatever reason, the strategic role of the Saudi monarchy in all of this is rarely given its due credit.
    Students of the 1980s Iran-Iraq war are aware of the Sauds’ role in getting Saddam Hussein to invade Iran in an effort to blunt the influence of the idea of an Islamic republic as an alternative to Islamic monarchies.
    The Saudi role in financing and directing last year’s coup in Egypt against another kind of incipient Islamic republic seems to have had a similar motivation.
    It seems clear that the Saudis have since a couple of months ago truly disavowed their alliance with ISIS/DAESH and Jabhat Nusra, but it seems equally clear that it was they who really got that ball rolling.
    I tend to think that our (indirect) reliance on Saudi oil, and heavy economic integration with them, tends to blind our civilian leadership to the degree to which Saudi Arabia is our true regional adversary, insofar as our own interest is in developing stable and somewhat democratic forms of government in the region.

  • m3fd2002 says:

    Reports of Baquaba being taken by ISIS after Iraqi Army was ordered to retreat (off course). That’s south of Samarra. They may be bypassing Sumarra for now. It looks like ISIS and company are consolidating their recent gains. I’m sure they are moving down some heavy assets that they captured from their offensive into the Baghdad theater. I won’t be surprised if we hear of attacks in Mahmudiyah south of Baghdad. This was a hot zone for the Allies during the Sunni rebellion. ISIS/rebels have elements already in place. Talk about only some 1000 fighters for ISIS is obviously inaccurate. What ever is happening, I would estimate their strength far higher (10’s of thousands) with more joining daily.

  • Knighthawk says:

    Sounds like those who were fighting were abandoned from above.

  • lisa says:

    I thought we had enough oil here for our own supply and exported more oil than we used.

  • blert says:

    It’s a rare man who can think in the turned-around style of Tehran.
    1) Don’t be surprised if it ultimately turns out that Iran not only is thrilled about ISIL’s advances — but that they’ve done all in their power to trigger this result… all the while attaining deniability.
    2) Each pathetic advance for insanely fanatic ISIL pirates causes Iranian geopolitical power to surge straight up.
    a) the ball moves to ISIL not the mullahs atomic program
    b) Maliki ends up throwing the keys to his kingdom to Tehran.
    c) It’s a game that they’ve ALREADY been playing with/ against Assad in Syria.
    3) Tehran NEVER does anything in a straight forward manner. They’ve been at this for 35-years and no-one has ever caught them doing anything honorable.
    4) The actual tally of ISIL muj is quite low, trivial compared to the size of al Quds or the Hez.
    5) The mullahs are thrilled that all of the combatants bleeding in the fields are non-Iranians. They sit back and cackle.
    6) Such strategic gambits are part of the basic course material at KGB/ SVR college. The Iranians learned much from the Nazis and the Soviets.
    There are many who speculate that ISIL is getting big bucks from KSA. ( KSA is phobic about AQ, so ISIL’s AQ connection (now conveniently neglected) is still damning from Riyahd’s point of view.)
    Surely big monies are flowing from Qatar and the Emirates. They are even less picky.
    As for Kuwait, any connection to the Ba’athist clique can’t go down well.
    Whereas Iran has been financing both sides all along.
    There has been more than a little bit of talk about Sunni fanatics coming from Pakistan getting into the ISIL (mercenary) army. That would go a long way to explain the sudden turnabout in fortunes. Certainly Pakistan (and its FATA) have a deep enough bench to stand up the ISIL with a trivial fraction of its man-power.
    But with every fanatic running around with his face covered — who can know what?

  • M. says:

    Good article.
    This situation is similar to the two Battles of Shahi Koht in Afghanistan — one during the Soviet invasion during the 80’s and the other during the US invasion in 2002 when the Taliban fought the US AFO.
    The Geography of Shahi Koht put obvious limits on Taliban maneuvers, and historical experience directed their leaders. The Muj had retreated to Shahi Koht during the Soviet war, and reverted to it during the US invasion. When the US forces were able to discern this, it allowed them to go after the Taliban in the one place they thought they were safe.
    If ISIS is indeed repeating the Baghdad belt battle plan from ’06, then this is the opportune time for Iraq to prepare for a siege on the city, and nip the belt-bases in the bud. Iraq needs good intel on ISIS safehouses and bases, and then needs to be able to act on the intel by going out there and neutralising the ISIS forces. And by intel, I mean human-intelligence, not overhead photography.
    If Iraq can hold onto Baghdad, then Iraq will be able to stand. But sieges are protracted and lengthy, and the ISIS forces are prepared to wait out the Iraqi government — and they now have the resources to do so. Let’s hope the Iraqis have the fortitude to withstand the seige.

  • Alarmed Kafir says:

    I’m amazed at how many comments here are strategizing for the Iraqis. I’m dismayed not to see more thought put into how the US can turn this situation to our advantage.

    It appears to me that our national identity and sense of worth (in the entire civilized West) has been so diluted that we are more concerned about the rest of the world than we are about our own survival. The Koran commands total submission to Allah worldwide, and that’s what a good portion of Muslims are striving for day in and day out. That is what the Caliphate is all about – when that is formed, the Emir can call for offensive jihad as opposed to the current defensive jihad.

    There is a deep fault line in Islam between the Sunni and Shia that we should be exploiting to the fullest. America should stay the hell out of the sink hole called the Middle East and stir the pot from afar. Root for the losing side. Hell – even support the losing side – and let them savage one another as Allah commands.

  • Moose says:

    You’re right, this isn’t about oil.
    @Alarmed Kafir
    I agree with everything you said, and I’m a former Muslim.


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