The Iraqi army relied heavily on its advantage in the air over the weekend as the government launched several counterattacks against jihadists and rebels north of Baghdad, especially in Salah ad Din province. However, the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant still holds the city of Tikrit.
Iraq used recently acquired Mi-35 gunships to strike Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant positions with guided missiles, while Iraqi army infantry units, bolstered by Shiite militias, pushed back against Sunni militants north of Baghdad and near the city of As Samarra.
Farther north, the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant and other Sunni insurgents continue efforts to consolidate their position by attacking towns and villages across Ninawa province. In assaults against the majority-Turkmen town of Tal Afar, the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant has reportedly seized around 90 percent of the town, forcing thousands of residents to flee to safer areas. The group also remains heavily active in Diyala and Anbar provinces (northeast and west of Baghdad, respectively), while small militant cells believed to be affiliated with the group have carried out a number of bombings in the center of the capital.
Iraq Syria ISIS Activity
Meanwhile, the United States has moved to secure its diplomatic presence in Baghdad, with 150 Marines reportedly being sent to bolster embassy security. Washington is also actively considering options for aiding the Iraqi government against the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant and its allies. Options range from accelerating the delivery of military aid to staging airstrikes. However, the White House has made clear that ground troops are not an option. Washington will continue to reinforce the central government while limiting its direct involvement in the crisis.
Iran and Turkey seem to be increasing their involvement in the conflict, with several indications that Iranian advisers are on the ground in Iraq to coordinate the movement and mobilization of Shiite militias. So far, Baghdad has denied that any Iranian forces are on Iraqi soil. Turkey is also increasingly alarmed at the plight of Turkomen Iraqis in the north as the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant moves on Tal Afar, and Ankara has reportedly begun reconnaissance flights over Ninawa.
The conflict appears to be turning increasingly sectarian, a prospect that does not bode well for Iraqi stability. Militants have reportedly executed hundreds of Shiite prisoners of war, while new recruits to the Iraqi security forces are predominantly Shiite. It is clear that militant victories in the recent offensive followed significant Sunni and tribal dissent against the central government. In fact, while Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant fighters have carried out the bulk of the fighting thus far, they are likely outnumbered by other Sunni opposition fighters, who for the moment find common cause in opposing the central government. With numerous Sunni fighting groups forming and conducting operations, and with Shiite militias entering the fight, the sectarian battle lines will complicate efforts to find a solution that unifies Iraqis.
But in the short term, the Iraqi army will probably stabilize the situation somewhat by holding its positions north of Baghdad and by continuing to move toward Tikrit as more reinforcements arrive and are placed into battle. Baghdad will continue to be dangerous, especially with Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant militants active in the city and the risk of militant cell attacks and vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices remaining high. But as we have noted, a serious militant effort to take the capital will diminish as momentum fades and loyalist forces are marshaled close to the capital. Even if the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant and its allies make a determined push on the capital, the attack would likely backfire as the jihadists and rebels encounter a well-entrenched and motivated force far more capable than the army divisions that were routed in the north.