Over the weekend, peshmerga fighters seized Gazzer mountain near Kalak along the road to Mosul. In Anbar province, Iraqi government forces, backed by Iraqi and American air power, pushed back against Islamic State fighters close to the city of Haditha, which is one of the largest population centers in western Iraq and sits near a strategic dam on the Euphrates River. Over the weekend, Iraqi forces also took the northern entrance to Berwana, a small town located to Haditha's southeast, completing the takeover Sept. 8.
Successful Iraqi government operations against the Islamic State and wider Sunni opposition in recent weeks have relied on two elements. The first is the participation of highly trained Iraqi special operations forces, particularly the Golden Brigades, which received training in the United States and Jordan. The Iraqi special operations forces have proved their mettle by standing their ground against particularly ferocious Islamic State assaults at the Beiji refinery and spearheaded the successful effort to take back the Mosul Dam before handing control over to peshmerga forces. In the latest Iraqi government offensive in Anbar province, the Iraqi special operations forces once again figured prominently in leading the attack.
The second decisive factor in stopping the advance of Islamic State militants has been American air power. American reconnaissance airplanes have gathered crucial intelligence on Islamic State movements and operations. Air Force transport planes have also carried out vital airdrops to besieged Yazidis in Sinjar mountain and Shiite Turkmen in the town of Amerli while transporting munitions and equipment to Kurdish forces. U.S. fighter-bombers and heavy bombers, too, have carried out devastating strikes against Islamic State artillery, convoys and command posts. American air power has greatly bolstered Baghdad in the fight against the Islamic State by acting as a force multiplier for local fighters.
But Iraqi special operations forces and American air power, although greatly beneficial, are not enough to take down the Islamic State. Iraqi special operations personnel are few. Units have already suffered considerable attrition in numerous running battles against Islamic State fighters, and their effectiveness is probably already declining due to prolonged exposure to combat. Indeed, the Iraqi Golden Brigades reportedly sustained numerous casualties in the fight to hold the Beiji refinery and in failed attempts to take back Tikrit. American air power, on the other hand, is great at breaking up concentrated Islamic State forces in the open, but its effectiveness will decrease as Iraqi military and peshmerga forces take the fight to the Islamic State in built-up areas, particularly in urban centers such as Mosul.
Although the Islamic State's momentum has been blunted, the fight against the militant group will continue to be difficult. As seen in repeated attempts by heavily equipped Iraqi forces to take back Tikrit, as well as continued exertions by Patriotic Union of Kurdistan forces to take Jalawla, efforts to drive the Islamic State out of built-up areas are difficult and fraught with risk. The failure to take back Tikrit, even with heavy armor and Iraqi special operations forces leading the assault, is a foreboding sign as the Islamic State’s enemies begin to consider an effort to take back Mosul.
Ultimately, neither U.S. air power nor Iraqi special operations forces, as effective as they may be, will prove the best weapon against the Islamic State. Convincing the Iraqi Sunni population and tribes to turn on the Islamic State would be far more effective. This approach has been successfully attempted in certain areas, especially in Anbar province, but the Sunni population as a whole has yet to turn against the group. Such a strategy remains a political rather than a military one, necessitating a considerable effort by Baghdad to elicit support from a population long neglected by the previous government.