Islamic State, Shiite militias square off east of Ramadi

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.

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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18 Comments

  • m3fd2002 says:

    Should be interesting. Red on Red.

  • Moe says:

    The American acceptance to the use of Iranian Shia militias makes it all sadly clear that this has nothing to do with making the right thing, but it’s all about protecting own ass.

    • m3fd2002 says:

      That’s because the US has little choice at this juncture. The current Iraqi government is heavily influenced by Iran. The US has very little influence. Sure they will accept US air support along with any monies we are willing to throw their way. What should be done from here, blaming anyone now is a moot point. My feeling is that Iraq is a “scrape”, time to withdraw completely and re-evaluate. Will that be done, I highly doubt, we have painted ourselves into a corner, metaphorically.

  • John says:

    Why wouldn’t IS just sit back and enable the impending sectarian war?

    • Guy says:

      Because they have the initiative. Every day that passes is a wasted opportunity for IS if they don’t attack; it enables Baghdad to regroup and the US to develop targeting data. If I were an IS leader, I’d be hitting hard and hitting every day.

  • Kate says:

    Bill,

    What would happen if/when ISIS takes Baghdad? (Since they keep taking everyone by surprise, I’m guessing that while they are openly attacking one city, they probably send sleeper cells into a cities farther down the line…)

    Would the Iranians come rushing in to restore the Persian Empire? Would ISIS gain an additional strategic advantage or more of a symbolic one? What additional threat would it pose to our allies in the Middle East (e.g. the ones who are not thrilled with America’s courting of Iran)?

    • Guy says:

      They won’t. Baghdad is far larger and more heavily defended than anything IS has ever encountered and would be contested tooth and nail, not only by Iranian militias but by the US. Furthermore, residents in Baghdad simply won’t allow it as the vast majority are appalled by IS and it’s tactics and would fight a guerrilla war themselves.

      But, to answer your question, it would be far beyond a symbolic victory. It would mean Iraq had disintegrated. We’re not there yet, though.

  • don owen says:

    Great article Bill.

  • Jeff Edelman says:

    What are the long term consequences for islam?

  • Mark Pillow says:

    The hole thing reeks of the practice of keeping all powers to weak to challenge or dominate another and we seem to think our Air and Aid when focused on IS will be enough to defeat them while preventing any other party from being able to defend themselves without the co-operation of another party, as if this will cause them to forge the bonds that are needed to keep Iraq one entity.
    Interesting in theory, but boring in war.

  • Mark Pillow says:

    When I think about it – infused with 100’s of vehicles from the U.S. VA BAGHDAD, IS is one good sand storm away from OWNING a NW Baghdad Suburb…

  • Dave from the burbs says:

    This is going to get messy. More than it already is. The Albu Fahd tribe sure as hell won’t work with Shia militia.

    • Guy says:

      Right, and vice versa. I think messy is an understatement haha….They aren’t a monolith though, and shouldn’t be treated as such. Various factions exist that can be swayed with agreements and cash, but to a lesser extent than before (thanks, Malaki). Unfortunately the only viable option for Baghdad at this hour are Shia militias…

  • Minnor says:

    I always thought it is an anomaly that Fallujah which is closer to Baghdad is in ISIS control and Ramadi is in govt control. Now Iraq should try to secure Fallujah first as it has a small dam crossing too, and demolish the Ramadi bridge over river. Security comes before economy, so destroying few bridges wont harm. They should make wide roads crisscrossing through all cities so that capturing a city conventionally would be easier.

  • Guy says:

    My question is this: How does the administration validate which militias aren’t under the “influence” of Iran? Clearly most are, and have been for some time, yet we continue to assert that we will only intervene in any given battle if all parties present are under the command of Baghdad. I’m assuming al-Abadi has nominal control over all the militias while Iranian agents exercise real battlefield (tactical) control. Genuinely asking….

    It’s a sticky situation, for all parties. I think while it’s easy to say the US should pull out completely, that would do nothing to advance our interests and simply flush Iraq down the toilet.

    • m3fd2002 says:

      From my perspective Iraq is already “down the toilet”. The vast majority of capable political/military figures (Sunni and Shiite) have been killed, arrested, fired, or have left the country. The current political/military leadership are more concerned about consolidating their power bases and use the growing oil revenues to advance their personal status. They could care less about the welfare of the street. Sadly, I have concluded that a huge opportunity was squandered at significant cost.

  • mike merlo says:

    Great news. Hopefully the siege of Baghdad begins some time soon, preferably no later than the latter of part of Summer & or early Fall. Am also looking forward to the Saudis, Turks & other GCC members committing Ground Forces to the affray
    .

  • Tom McCabe says:

    Not sure how much good they’ll do, aside from US enemies on both sides getting killed, hopefully in large numbers. A couple of hundred ISIS in Tikrit fought 20,000 Shia militias, led by the Iranian Patton Soleimani, to a standstill for nearly a month, inflicting heavy losses in the process. Then after the Shia militias pulled out, a couple of thousand Sunni tribesmen and government troops, supported by US air strikes, finished the job in a week or so.

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