The Islamic State, flush with the success of overrunning Anbar’s provincial capital of Ramadi over the weekend, is advancing eastward in an effort to consolidate its gains and take full control of the Ramadi-Fallujah corridor. The Iraqi government is rushing in thousands of fighters from Iranian-backed Shiite militias to shore up demoralized Iraqi troops, block the Islamic State’s advance, and launch a counteroffensive to retake Ramadi.
The Islamic State claimed it has taken control of the towns of East Husaybah and Juwaybah in a statement released on its radio program, Al Bayan, on May 19.
“[T]he lions of Al Anbar continue their march to completely cleanse Wilayah Al Anbar [Anbar province] of the filth of the Safawiyyin and their puppets,” Al Bayan said. “They assaulted and took control of East Al Husaybah and Al Juwaybah, the stronghold of the Albu-Fahd Sahwah [Awakening, the Sunni tribal militias], and reached the points overlooking the city of Al Khalidiyah.” The Albu Fahd tribe has been opposed to the Islamic State.
Khalidiyah is a town just outside of the city of Habbaniyah, which is roughly halfway between Ramadi and Fallujah. Two nearby military bases, Camp Habbaniyah and Taqqadum, are being used as staging areas for Iraqi troops and Shiite militias that are gathering to retake Ramadi.
The Islamic State also claimed it shelled Camp Habbaniyah and “took complete control of the highway next to Ar Ramadi.” All of the jihadist group’s claims cannot be independently confirmed, however the group has accurately reported on its offensive in Ramadi and elsewhere. Iraqi press reports confirmed that Camp Habbaniyah has come under rocket and mortar attacks.
Iraqi military officials claimed that Iraq security forces and the tribes have established blocking positions between Husaybah and Juwaybah to halt the Islamic State’s advance. An Iraqi Army major told Al Baghdadiyah News that more than 4,000 Awakening fighters from the Albu Fahd have organized to defend the areas east of Habbaniyah.
Shiite militias move to Habbaniyah
After Iraqi forces were routed in Ramadi, Prime Minister Haider al Abadi put out the call for the fighters from the Iranian-backed Shiite militias that are part of the so-called Popular Mobilization Committee, or Hashid Shaabi, to deploy to Anbar province to battle the Islamic State. The militias, including the Imam Ali Brigade, Hezbollah Brigades, the Sayyed al Shuhada Brigade, Badr Organization, and Harakat Nujaba, immediately issued calls for their fighters to report for duty and prepare to fight in Anbar.
The militias are moving forces to Habbaniyah and will lead the fight against the Islamic State. Hadi al Ameri, the leader of the Badr organization and Iraq’s Minister of Transportation, was spotted in Habbaniyah on Monday to coordinate the militias’ role in the fight.
The Shiite militias will take the lead role in the offensive, a US military intelligence official told The Long War Journal. An estimated 7,000 Shiite fighters, all from groups backed by Iran, will coordinate with units from Iraq’s Golden Division, which fled from Ramadi, and about 2,000 police officers.
The Popular Mobilization Committee is led by Abu Mahdi al Muhandis, a former commander in the Badr Organization who was listed by the US government as a Specially Designated Global Terrorist in July 2009. The US government described Muhandis, whose real name is Jamal Jaafar Mohammed, as “an advisor to Qassem Soleimani,” the commander of the Qods Force, the external operations wing of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC). Soleimani has visited the Shiite militias fighting on the Tikrit front, and is said to have directed the Tikrit operation. [See LWJ report, US sanctions Iraqi Hezbollah Brigades and Qods Force adviser, and Threat Matrix report, Iranian general at the forefront of the Tikrit offensive.]
In addition to leading the Popular Mobilization Committee, Muhandis is also said to direct the operations of Kata’ib Imam Ali (Imam Ali Brigade) as well as command the Hezbollah Brigades, which is listed by the US as a Foreign Terrorist Organization. Top leaders in the Sayyed al Shuhada Brigade and Harakat Nujaba are listed as Specially Designated Global Terrorists or are known to have targeted US forces in Iraq during the US occupation from 2003 to 2011. [For more information the militias, see LWJ report, US begins airstrikes against Islamic State in Tikrit, supports Shiite militias.]
The US military, under the aegis of Operation Inherent Resolve, the coalition of nations tasked with “defeating and dismantling” the Islamic State, likely will provide air support for the Iranian-backed militias that are responsible for killing hundreds of American troops and remain hostile to the US. US and coalition airpower was used to support the militias in offensives in Amerli, Jurf al Sakhar, and Tikrit. These militias committed war crimes in Amerli after ejecting the Islamic State, according to Human Rights Watch, and are accused of doing the same in Tikrit. [See LWJ report, Iranian-backed militias rampaged in central Iraq after freeing town: HRW.]
The use of Shiite militias in Anbar is likely to stoke sectarian tensions in the province, and may aid the Islamic State’s recruiting efforts. The militias are seen by many Sunnis as agents of Iran, who seek to oppress Iraq’s Sunnis.