The Islamic State has scored at least a temporary victory in the critical city of Baiji — Iraqi forces conducted a “tactical withdrawal” over the weekend from areas around the town.
Several key Iraqi Army and militia leaders were reportedly killed in the fighting around the city, home to the largest oil refinery in the country. This occurs as top Iraqi commanders are facing court martial over abandoning their positions in Ramadi, the capital of Anbar province, earlier this year.
Iraqi forces have been contesting the Islamic State’s hold on the city, which they captured in their push into northern Iraq in June 2014 and lost control of last November. The city is essential for both ISIS and the Iraqis, for it controls access to the ISIS-held city of Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city. Baiji is located 130 miles north of Baghdad and about 25 miles north of Tikrit.
ISIS launched a counter-offensive against Iraqi forces in the area late last week. Reuters reported Friday:
Islamic State militants attacked the outskirts of Iraq’s northern oil refinery town of Baiji overnight with car bombs and clashed with the army and Shi’ite militias in the town’s western districts, the local mayor and security sources said on Friday.
Control of Baiji neighborhoods has changed hands many times during the conflict. Authorities said last month they had recaptured most of the town, but the radical jihadist group attacked central neighborhoods days later, forcing pro-government forces to pull back.
At least three militia fighters were killed on Friday when Islamic State launched car bomb attacks against a makeshift headquarters in al-Rayash, about 18 km (5 miles) south of Baiji, a militia leader and a source in the Salahuddin Operations Command said.
Mortars in an adjacent area killed two civilians, according to the source in the operations command, the Iraqi military’s command center for the province of Salahuddin, where Baiji is situated.
Baiji Mayor Mahmoud al-Jabouri said Islamic State used 12 car bombs and more than 200 fighters in the offensive.
On Saturday, Al Jazeera Arabic reported that the Iraqi Army Salahuddin Province commander stated their forces had conducted a “tactical withdrawal” (begins at 0:15):
Al Jazeera English later published a report on the ISIS offensives in both Fallujah and Baiji:
In a separate attack in Baiji in Salahuddine province, ISIL launched an attack on Iraqi forces killing several troops, the commander of operations in Salahuddine province said.
Rukn al-Jumaa also said that due to the deadly clashes, Iraqi forces had had to retreat in some areas of Baiji.
They also launched attacks on Iraqi army barracks south of the city:
— Terrormonitor.org (@Terror_Monitor) August 16, 2015
Yesterday, ISIS published a statement noting the deaths of Iraqi leaders in the battle, as well as highlighting the capture of Iraqi equipment:
— Terrorism Research & Analysis Consortium (@TRACterrorism) August 16, 2015
Photoset: Destroyed and abandoned Iraqi army and pro-government militia vehicles and equipment in Baiji… http://t.co/3l5UDsYsQZ
— C. Anzalone (@IbnSiqilli) August 17, 2015
ISIS has also reportedly blown up the bridge between Baiji and Tikrit, making reinforcement of Iraqi troops extremely difficult:
— Iraq Solidarity News (@iraqsolidarity) August 17, 2015
Meanwhile, competing claims of success by Iraqi Army and Shiite militia supporters in taking areas north of the town and approaching the refinery are simultaneously circulating:
— Aymenn J Al-Tamimi (@ajaltamimi) August 17, 2015
— IraqiMilitaryDomain (@Iraqi_Military) August 17, 2015
The Iraqis need Baiji to eventually push towards Mosul, and ISIS needs to hold Baiji to prevent any progress. Undoubtedly this area will continue to be heavily contested by both sides.
But the “tactical withdrawal” of Iraqi forces in the face of Obama’s “JV team” doesn’t bode well for the prospects of taking the battle deep into the heart of ISIS territory in the near future.