ISIS’ advance halted at Samarra

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 Islamic State of Iraq and the Sham’s rapid advance southward to Baghdad after taking control of Mosul just three days ago appears to have been halted outside of the gates of Samarra, home to one of the holiest shrines in Shia Islam.

Iraqi security forces in Samarra blunted the ISIS’ assault from the north late yesterday, stopping an armed convoy from entering the city. The military is said to have deployed aircraft while battling the ISIS vanguard.

The Iraqi military’s stand in Samarra stands in contrast to its performance in Mosul, Tikrit, Bayji, and other cities and towns taken over by the ISIS. Iraqi forces often surrendered or melted away in these cities, leaving behind weapons, ammunition, and police and military vehicles. Thousands of prisoners have been freed during the ISIS onslaught.

The attack on Samarra is the second in a week. On June 5, the ISIS assaulted Samarra from the west, and took control of five neighborhoods before being ejected by the military and police. [See LWJ report, ISIS takes control of areas in central Iraqi city.]

Samarra is home to the al Askaria Mosque, one of the most holy shrines in Shia Islam. Al Qaeda in Iraq, the predecessor of the ISIS, bombed the Golden Dome of the al Askaria Mosque in February 2006, sparking massive sectarian fighting between Iraq’s Shia and Sunnis.

The ISIS has threatened to destroy the mosque if Iraqi forces refuse to withdraw from the city.

The Shia-led Iraqi government will likely make a stand at Samarra, given the importance of the mosque. Additionally, there are reports that Shia militias are beginning to organize and deploy forces to protect religious sites.

According to The New York Times, “at least four brigades, each with 2,500 to 3,000 fighters, had been hastily assembled and equipped in recent weeks by the Shiite political parties to protect Baghdad and the political process in Iraq. They identified the outfits as the Kataibe Brigade, the Assaib Brigade, the Imam al-Sadr Brigade and the armed wing of the Badr Organization.”

ISIS takes control of three towns; clashes reported in Taji

As Iraqi forces make their stand in Samarra, the ISIS was able to take control of the towns of Dhuluiyah, Saadiyah, and Jalula to the southwest. ISIS fighters are said to have overran an airbase in Dhuluiyah and captured hundreds of prisoners.

Further south, reports from Iraq indicate that the ISIS is conducting raids on towns along the road between Samarra and Baghdad. According to Rudaw, a Kurdish-language news outlet, ISIS fighters have battled Iraqi forces in the town of Taji, which is just north of Bagdad. The outcome of the fighting has not been disclosed.

The ISIS may be attempting to interdict the Iraqi military and the Shia militia’s attempts to reinforce units holding out in Samarra and other cities and towns along the road north of Baghdad.

The ISIS is adept at laying IEDs to decimate military convoys as well as using ambushes with small arms, machine guns, and RPGs to interdict supply columns. The ISIS’s control of eastern Anbar province allows it to use the area as a staging ground to launch attacks on Highway 1. Karma, a city in Anbar that is under ISIS control, is just 15 miles due west of Taji.

The recent ISIS advances in northern and central Iraq effectively put the terror group in control of nearly a third of the country. The ISIS already controls most of the large western province of Anbar, save the provincial capital of Ramadi and some small pockets.

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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  • Mueller says:

    Izzat al-Douri has emerged out of the shadows. Without a doubt, Qatar is clandestinely backing ISIS with money and weapons. No insurgency could take hold otherwise. US intel must have known. NYT report points to possible Saddam era intel agents working with Sunni tribes as well as Islamists.
    This is complex. Maliki has been fanning sectarian flames in order to hold power, and this is the result.Kind of like explaining to Shiites that the alternative to his corrupt/despotism are Sunni extremists. With such corrupt leadership, its not difficult to see how it trickles down to an unprofessional Iraqi army. Them retreating at the first sign of trouble is expected. What will can there be to fight for a corrupt regime in Baghdad?

  • Alex says:

    Good news, but halting an advance is not enough. ISIS needs to be rolled back. As we learned prior to the 2007 surge, the problem with security in Baghdad and elsewhere is, for lack of better terms, “commuter terrorists.”
    Reports are now coming in that Kirkuk is completely under Peshmerga control. Curious what the Arab population has to say about this–although perhaps maybe not much if they think Kurdish control would provide a security bubble. Stranger things have happened.

  • Fred says:

    Ten years of work, billions of dollars, thousands of lives. Being wiped out before our eyes. What were we thinking?

  • KW64 says:

    With Shia Shrines at risk, one has to wonder if Iran may not decide to “help”. The Iraqis do not like them but “any port on a storm” thinking may prevail. Iran could decide to fill the role the US abondoned in the Shia regions while letting the ISIS control the Sunni areas and the Kurds in Kurdistan.

  • Hrolf says:

    Do the Kurds have any air assets? Helos? Jets?

  • TallDave says:

    Have the Anbari tribes rejoined AQ? Maybe they consider ISIS to be more palatable (e.g. not forcing wives and crazy rules on them?)?
    It’s somewhat ironic that the failure to contain the situation in Syria has now spilled over into Iraq.
    Mueller raises a great question though: who is funding/arming ISIS? Is it Qatar? Is it SA? Is it.. us?

  • Bill Baar says:

    Did Iraqi units melt away in Mosel or change sides?

  • Alex says:

    What’s the over/under on if the US launches air strikes/drone strikes in support of the Iraqi Army? I give it 60% odds by the end of next week if nothing changes.

  • Alex says:

    Viva la France?
    (Reuters) – France said on Thursday world powers needed to act urgently to deal with the situation in Iraq as the advance by Islamist militants put the country’s unity in doubt and posed a wider risk for the region.

  • m3fd2002 says:

    The 2nd division had many kurds, it seems that they just crossed over the Tigris with their equipment and joined the Peshmerga. Other elements definitely deserted (an arab tradition), while others joined the ISIS. There are reports of ISIS flying captured helicopters. Sorry no link. That means that the pilots flipped. Lets see what happens in Samarra. There is the Shia Askari Shrine that was damaged in the uprising that got the Mehdi Army fired up.

  • Alex says:

    Any confirmation on this story of Iran Quds Force operating in Tikrit?

  • solomon says:

    the shrines are in a sunni city and they have been protected by the sunnis for 1300 yeas reason is they are holly to the sunnis too. it is not about shrines or shia sunni it is about a pupprt government that was supported by the US and Iran to keep Iraq unstable. in few days hopefully sunnis and shia will agree to get rid of maliki and form a government that will fulfill the aspiration of all Iraqis.

  • KW64 says:

    Well, while the US ponders what move it might make, Iran did not take much time to respond to the ISIS threat by sending in Kuds troops. Assuming Iran/Iraqi forces halt ISIS, Iran will have an even bigger position of influence in Iraq.

  • John says:

    The ISIS is very self sufficient, consider how much money is kept in a city of 2 million. There are of course many private donors large and small from all over the gulf and even the west, but Ar-Raqqah alone brings in millions of dollars in tax to the organization.

  • donowen says:

    Nothing wasted- not as many to deal with in the final end game. Let them (sunni/jihadi or whatever) consolidate-actually have something they do not want to give up. The Iraqi Shiite need to formally fight as a nation-they will when faced with oblivion. Three countries out of Iraq and Syria fine. Kurds finally get their country and control of oil. Sunni’s get what they deserve-desert. Their supporters will get what they deserve-a non-productive group of low tech/ pickup truck fighters only capable of battalion strength actions that have no resources-no oil-no dates-no camels- no spare Toyoto parts and require constant money. Karma is hell.

  • Jack Brown says:

    No Air Force.
    There are plenty of factors that led to this apparently bizarre and unexpected collapse. Not least of which I am sure will turn out to have been a conspiracy among Sunni high ranking officers. Clearly severe problems on the civilian leadership side as well, given that al-Maliki allowed ISIS to hold territory in Al-Anbar for as long as he did.
    But from a purely tactical point of view, there is the fact that Iraqi ground units don’t seem to be able to call on any equipment at all for close air support. No functional attack helicopters (which are of course pretty vulnerable anyway), and no fighter aircraft at all.
    If there is anything to blame the Americans for in this fiasco, it seems to me that it should be for not building up an air force with some useful ground attack units. That it seems to me is the big advantage that a state military has versus ISIS type forces.

  • Quds Force commander Maj Gen Suleimani met with Al Maliki today….I think this is a done deal and Iran is stepping in to take our place to prop up Al Maliki just like they did with Assad.
    I also think this will motivate the Sunni minority to further support ISIS…..Iraq is about to disintegrate.

  • Nick says:

    ISIS is not doing this on their own. It appears to be a Sunni revolt in the ranks. ISIS appears to be over extending themselves. I suspect that Iranian Quds advisors and pipe hitters are arriving as we speak. Iran can also deploy drones as it has done in Syria. I’m waiting for the barrel bombs to start dropping.
    Any collaboration between former Baathist and ISIS is doomed to be short lived. The two have competing agendas. I predict that ISIS get’s cut up and chopped to pieces over the next few weeks.
    I wonder about the water and the power situation in Baghdad and areas south. Can ISIS cut off water and power from their strongholds in the Northern Euphrates and Tigris river valleys? They could make life pretty miserable.
    I agree with the assessment that this is a direct result of Maliki, and Iran, stoking the flames of sectarian divide.
    I am a little taken by surprise the ability of ISIL to fight simultaneous wars in Syria and Iraq. Somebody is pumping a lot of support both monetarily and weapons.

  • Delta Mike says:

    Without the ability to name the enemy properly, we have floundered our way to defeat. The enemy is ISLAMIC JIHAD! All this building Democracy nonsense, as well as the “war on terror” misses the mark.
    This defeat in the Middle East only jeopardizes Israel, and brings Jihad closer to America proper. Does anyone really believe the thousands of young Muslim men from Europe and the US, cycling through these Jihad campaigns, will NOT resume practicing their murderous trade upon returning home? Think Nairobi, Mumbai, London 7/7/07 as a warm up.
    You can bet WHEN the attacks start in CONUS, the administration’s first action will be an executive order to confiscate all firearms to “reduce the level of violence”. This in actuality will leave the American people more at the mercy of Jihad. Thus, we will be invited to go to the Islamic chopping block quietly.

  • David Smith says:

    I think it’s misleading to refer to everyone using armed force but ourselves as terrorists. ISIS looks like a different animal from al Qaeda. They want to establish a state, while the latter are essentially anarchists in practice. Further, we’re seeing once more that, absent an overwhelming central authority able to suppress local ambitious leaders, it’s nearly impossible to reconcile distinct ethnic or religious groups. Outside Israel, the strong central authorities in the region are authoritarian, and even the Israelis can’t force their own religious zealots to live with Arabs. There is authoritarianism, or there is a redrawing of borders, or there is instability. Nothing else seems plausible. Certainly not an Iraqi Parliament that can’t even make a quorum.

  • Mike E says:

    US dithering is a disgrace. Our air power could be decisive. Large columns of ISIS SUVs could be easy prey and would provide a very target rich environment. We lack competent political leadership.

  • Vespasian Chancellor says:

    Several reports have the Iraqi army in chaos in Mosul. No sensible orders, confusion in most units, troops began to walk to the rear and the walk became a flood.
    Really the Iraqi army had/has plenty of armor, artillery and was capable of putting up a good fight, especially against guys in pick ups with nothing but rifles, machine guns and a few mortars.
    The Iraqi army did not have unit cohesion, unity of command or the trust of the troops. A deadly combination.
    al-Maliki’s attempt at ‘divide et impera’ has resulted in him gaining the hatred of the Sunnis, the distrust and dislike of the Kurds and a long running internecine struggle among various Shia factions. A sure recipe for disaster if a strong foe attacked.
    There are rumors from Iran of Quds force deployments to the Shia holy cities but I have seen no confirmation.
    So far what passes as the US Government has sleepily watched the Iraqi army we created disintegrate without lifting a hand and is not responding to our best friends’ in Iraq pleas for weapons and air support.
    Half assed political gestures will do no good here. Its time for all out air support, putting SF back into place or watch the most virulent strain of Sunni terrorists establish a “caliphate” of terrorists in the very center of the Middle East.

  • James says:

    This is just amazing.
    If we would have left a minimal force in Iraq, and had we supported the Syrian resistance adequately early on in this thing, this sorry situation would have never developed.
    Over and over again these clowns have said, “We’re going to end the war in Iraq.” Yeah right ! ! ! You betcha.

  • Eric says:

    Countdown to Armageddon

  • AMac says:

    Tactical and strategic analysis of the unfolding disaster by Jessica Lewis of the London-based Institute for the Study of War: The Battle for Baghdad: Scenarios.
    From an American civilian perspective: The parallels between the unfolding disintegration of the unitary Iraqi state and the Fall of Saigon in 1975 are striking. Judging from conversations at home and at work, and from the news story lineup on mass media outlets: most Americans just don’t care. It’s as if the blood and treasure that has been spilled over the past decade is being quietly acknowledged to have been a waste. Depressing to contemplate… so, let’s think about other things.

  • AMac says:

    The implications of ISIS’s capture, intact, of the major oil refinery in Bayji are striking.
    Assuming that the government stabilizes the situation and survives — not a given, IMO — it will be faced with the question of what to do about the essential industrial infrastructure in the jihadi-controlled areas just north of Baghdad. The power plant(s) that supply Baghdad’s electricity as well as the refinery.
    Initiating military operations to recapture them will guarantee their destruction. Given ISIS’s ruthlessness, perhaps the execution of trained staff and their families, as well. Baghdad deprived of oil a large fraction of oil revenues, and suddenly faced with long-term power shortages.
    Meanwhile, ISIS has been dependent on the largesse of Gulf state and Saudi paymasters and wealthy Salafis. The revenue and influence that these industrial assets will bring could catapult ISIS much closer to the status of a functioning state.
    This is the final nail in the coffin of the George W. Bush grand strategic vision of a functioning, unitary, friendly Iraq.
    Disaster for the West. Boon for the jihadist movements, And the emerging weak, rump, dependent Shi’ia state is a triumph for Iran.

  • USMCvet says:

    I agree with most of what has been said. Things look pretty bleak-as bad as they can get. It is also important to remember that when we were training the ISF we didn’t expect their to be a civil war in Syria that would draw half the extremists in the Muslim world. So they need help.
    I’m not saying we should definatley do this, but maybe this could be an opportunity in disguise, to kill as many of ISIS as we possibly can. I’m curious to know what you think of this Bill. This is completely different then when we invaded Iraq. Now the country wants us to help them and ISIS are the invaders. Their offensive isn’t really even blending into the population. They are riding around in the open on technicals. Maybe this is an opportunity to conduct operations similar to the initial invasion of Afghanistan or what the French did in Mali. The people are on our side, the enemy is fighting conventionally, and there aren’t even any mountains like in Afghanistan. What if we send in SOF, JSOC, 75th Rangers, and MASOC units to call in airstrikes using everything from helos to medium bombers? We might even use some light armored recon or stryker units which are perfect in this terrain, unlike in Afghanistan. They could call air supt, light up any ISIS vehicles they encounter and suptort some ISF units. 75th and MARSOC could go hunting for the important ISIS that did go to ground, or former Bathtist leaders. We wanted to go after these guys but couldn’t in Syria but maybe we could turn this tragedy into an opportunity to really put the hurt on ISIS.

  • jean says:

    Our response, the situation on the ground will remain murky or just dark. We will be limited in our response due to the inability to mark targets. That will require boots on the ground. In the age of NSA and SIGNET exploitation, it’s hard to believe we did not see this coming. Where did the equipment come from: Libya, Syria, and Money?? From Qatar?? We need to learn some lessons from this fiasco or face a repeat in Afghanistan in 2015-2016.

  • grunz says:

    what happens in Iraq is part of the issue Russia Syria Iran same as the Ukraine is, the ISIS is used to put pressure on the proiranian side that helps Assad and Russias interests, iraqi troops were reportedly ordered to hand over Mosul, this all an effort by the gulf states and the US, all the chechnia wars and all those chechnians that fight Assad part of the gulfstate and US policies, regular daily worldpolitics a constant situaton of cold and hot war
    @m3fd2002 deserting is not a tradition among arab soldiers that is a very ignorant statement, we can discuss that here anytime..

  • M3fd2002 says:

    I stand by my statement. 1948 israeli/arab war, 1967 six day war, 1973 yom kippur war, 1982 israeli/ lebabon war, 1991 gulf war; 2001 iraq invasion (iraqi government was toppled after 5 day ground assault), last lebanon/ israeli war- israel never committed massive ground forces so hizbollah survived, which is considered an example of a major Victory for the modern arab arnies of the last century.

  • Shirling says:

    The problem is, that ISIS has some support among the population as well, they couldnt be so successfull otherwise.
    And a massive air campaign like you suggested, even without direct boots on the ground, would make them even more popular (at least among the sunnis), especially if they spin it as “the imperialist americans are coming back to iraq”.
    You mentioned mali, but there the population had to first experience a year of living under Ansar Dine before they turned against them, and the Malians didnt had the same “troubled” past with the french like the iraqis and americans have.
    The root case for the whole iraqi desaster lies with the sunni-shia tensions, the weak central government and national army, as well as the sectarian policies of Maliki. The crisis wont end unless that is addressed in some way, and while you can decisively weaken ISIS with air support, you would have to do it every two years or so on end. Bombs and drones do not solve these kind of problems.

  • chris says:

    A lot of the line officers in the isil are old saddamn era soldiers . after Bush kicked them out of a job they went rogue. Its amazing what happened when we kicked over the ants nest of Iraq. Best thing to happen is Maliki getting removed . After that a greater Kurdistan and a greater Iran. Need to cut the jihadis off from cell phones and the internet. that is their communication and propaganda tool

  • Alex says:

    Maybe some good news, for a change. A major Sunni cleric has sided with al-Sistani (Shi’ite) issuing a fatwa to support the Iraqi Security Forces.

  • Gregory Mcdonel says:

    Go straight capital and hang maliki like the shias did saddam good luck my sunnie brothers,allah akbar

  • Mueller says:

    After reading some comments here, I would like to respond to general perception of what does and does not serve US interests. No offense to anyone in particular, but I find the over top hyperbolic calls for US military engagement to be absence of sound judgment. To pick a side in what is a sectarian war is stupid, and not in the interest of national security.
    Strictly speaking, no US interest is served in picking one side of a Sunni-Shiite war. As awful as this may sound, Sunni-Shiite conflict actually benefits US interests because the extremists from both sects are in conflict and weaken each other. They are focused on each other.

  • Student says:

    Hey guys !I read somewhere that one was asking about kurds haveing air support. And i can tell you guys no we dont have it. Im in South kurdistan right now and I am not afraid at all. Have any questions about Kurds YPG Or the KRG you are free to ask. Skype ( Thashiznitov )

  • Moose says:

    No, it was protected by the Turks who aren’t as crazy as the Saudis. Saudis have been attacking shrines for over 200 years.

  • Moose says:

    I couldn’t have said it better. It’s funny how everyone seems to be afraid of these guys on pickup trucks. A real military is what you see in the Peshmerga. ISIS has to transition from an insurgency to holding territory which is a totally different ballgame.
    Arabs traditionally only fight for their tribes. This is why Arab caliphates relied heavily on Mamelukes – slave soldiers from the periphery of the empire with no tribal loyalties. Tribal peoples often can’t be trusted in battle.
    I’m looking forward to an independent Kurdistan one day. If it was up to me, I would make it the focal point of my Middle East policy. Until then, keep up the good work!
    Some of you have also asked about Iraq’s industrial infrastructure: water, electricity, oil, etc. It might help to look to the Tabqa Dam in Syria which fell to al Nusra last year. Reports indicate that the Syrian government is paying al Nusra to keep it running. ISIS will most likely do the same thing in Iraq.

  • Ukash says:

    The Iraqi army did not have unit cohesion, unity of command or the trust of the troops. A deadly combination.
    al-Maliki’s attempt at ‘divide et impera’ has resulted in him gaining the hatred of the Sunnis, the distrust and dislike of the Kurds and a long running internecine struggle among various Shia factions. A sure recipe for disaster if a strong foe attacked.
    There are rumors from Iran of Quds force deployments to the Shia holy cities but I have seen no confirmation.

  • USMCvet says:

    Well Mueller and Shirling,
    Looks like the U.S. is going for a plan similar to what I outlined. Seems they think you can’t conduct airstrikes w/out some troops on the ground in this situation. Only time will tell how effective it and the ISF are. To say this is a sectarian conflict alone is short-sighted. The ISIS are seeking to make it such and have failed to date. Most of the Iraqi Sunni are not compatible with ISIS’ brand of extremist Islam.


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