Iraqi Insurgents Adopt New Tactics
Insurgents with anti-tank missiles clash with Iraqi brigades
On April 20, an Iraqi armored platoon was probing into insurgent-held territory near the city of Ramadi. Aside from a dozen MTLB armored vehicles, the Iraqi unit included at least one upgraded T-55 tank.
At least on paper, the platoon was more than enough to defeat lightly-armed insurgents. But as the column passed through the suburb of Al Humayrah—along a road flanked by high-walled compounds—the vehicles began exploding.
Insurgents with wire-guided anti-tank missiles—and professing allegiance to the hard-line Salafist group the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant— caught the vehicles in a deadly ambush.
By the time ISIL forces were finished, the Iraqi vehicles lay wrecked, burning and abandoned. Insurgent fighters moved in on foot and on gun-toting technicals. The result: One Iraqi column destroyed and at least one T-55 captured.
Obviously, the insurgents broadcast their victory with social media.
Aside from the use of anti-tank missiles—which have destroyed huge numbers of Syrian tanks—in Iraq, the attacks are a sign of the growing strength of Iraq’s Sunni insurgents.
That’s also the conclusion of a recent report from CTC Sentinel, West Point’s monthly counter-terror newsletter. According to the report, ISIL has made major territorial gains in recent months—amounting to the most significant since the early years of the U.S. occupation of Iraq..
That’s the bad news. The good news is that ISIL is also be overextending itself, and the terror group still has only mixed success at taking and holding territory. But if ultimately successful, “the development of a defensible ISIL caliphate just outside Baghdad would be a historic achievement on par with anything the movement has achieved in Syria,” the report warns.
ISIL’s tactics are also important. The insurgents are operating across borders and applying lessons learned in the Syrian civil war.
Civil war spillover
For months, the centerpieces of Iraq’s revived Sunni insurgency have been the cities of Fallujah and Ramadi. The former is outside the control of the central government, while Ramadi is the focus of considerable insurgent forces based in the city’s southern suburbs.
CTC Sentinel traces the latest round of fighting to the Iraqi’s government’s crackdown on Arab Spring-style protest camps in Ramadi and Fallujah in December 2013. In Ramadi, armed locals—not ISIL—repelled troops belonging to the Iraqi army 1st Division, including local police, as the authorities attempted to clear the square of protesters.
In Fallujah, Iraqi troops skirmished with armed locals on the outskirts before digging in for a siege. In both Fallujah and Ramadi, the subsequent vacuum of law and order allowed ISIL to exploit the situation to their advantage. These cities have since become dangerous places—even for Iraq.
In Fallujah, militants booby-trapped houses and roads. They’ve intimidated or killed local officials and police. The insurgents have also taken control of a series of dams near Fallujah in the Euphrates delta region. That means there’s a danger the insurgents could unleash enough water to swamp parts of Baghdad. (They’ve already flooded some rural areas.)
By contrast, ISIL forces have less control over Ramadi. Instead, they’ve unleashed a classic terror campaign marked by a sharp increase in suicide bombings. Today, there are an average of nine suicide attacks in the city per month, compared to one per month at the beginning of the year.
These attacks “are quite exceptional, even by the violent standards of today’s Iraq,” the report states.
The insurgents are also well-armed and experienced. The Iraqi army should not be underestimated, but it suffers from poor training and under-armored vehicles, many of them Humvees supplied by the United States and vulnerable to improvised explosive devices.
Not only can the militants destroy armored vehicles in numbers, “ISIL forces have used titanium-coated, armor piercing ammunition in Dragunov-model rifles to shoot out the engine blocks on large numbers of Iraqi Hummers in an apparent effort to reduce Iraqi Security Force mobility.”
But CTC Sentinel argues ISIL may have overextended itself—particularly as the Iraqi military relies more on pro-government militias from the same communities ISIL is attempting to penetrate. This is opposed to predominantly Shia soldiers who come from other parts of Iraq.
“If current trends continue, the ISIL’s gambit in the Ramadi-Falluja corridor could bring a strategic reversal for the movement within the Iraqi theater,” the report states.
And despite the Iraqi army’s vulnerability, Baghdad has managed to deploy a rather large force in the region. The report estimates the size of the Iraqi force at 13 brigades “with extensive artillery and air support.” These forces are also backed by Washington with a stable supply line through Baghdad International Airport.
In this sense, the militants’ successes may end up like what happened in Syria. There are certain areas under their control, but the insurgents are limited in how far their control can be extended into the capital. At the same time, the government—whether Damascus or Baghdad—can’t dislodge the insurgents from their main strongholds.
The problem is that the insurgents can still use their safe havens to launch attacks at civilian targets—which they do with alarming regularity.
Car bombings in mostly Shiite areas in Baghdad on June 7 killed at least 60 people. In Ramadi, gunmen stormed Anbar University, which they appeared to be converting into a base of operations. “Their goal was not to hold the university,” Iraqi army commander Rafa’a El Fahdawi told the New York Times’ Kahreem Fahim. “It was to terrify people.”