Oct 7, 2014 | 09:05 GMT

5 mins read

The Islamic State Gains Ground Near Baghdad

The Islamic State Gains Ground Near Baghdad

The head of the council in the Iraqi province of Anbar said in an interview Oct. 6 that 3,000 members of the Islamic State had moved into the area around Ramadi and Fallujah. His estimate is probably exaggerated, but it is accurate to say that militia movements have allowed for gains along this front in the past week.

The front around Ramadi and Fallujah is the most threatening to Baghdad. It was the origin of the most recent crisis with the Islamic State, it has always been one of the strongest points of resistance for Sunni militancy, and most important, it is mere kilometers from Baghdad. The threat to Baghdad is real, but coalition air power and the concentration of Shiite security forces will prevent the threat from becoming existential. The most likely Islamic State offensive into Baghdad would involve an unconventional attack.

The Islamic State's aggression has increased markedly around Ramadi and Fallujah in the past week. The group has launched a flurry of offensives against various towns and Iraqi security forces positions. Some attacks were repelled, but the Islamic State achieved notable victories at a base near Fallujah and in the town of Hit. Reportedly the group's positions in Ramadi were greatly improved. The overrunning of the base meant the capture of a great deal of materiel, including armored vehicles and assorted weaponry. These acquisitions will increase the Islamic State's ability to continue ransacking that part of Iraq for a bit longer. Elements of the Iraqi army's 7th, 8th and 9th divisions (located in Hit, Ramadi and Fallujah, respectively) have been particularly hard hit.

Protection for Baghdad

Signaling the seriousness of the threat, a preponderance of the coalition airstrikes in Iraq have shifted to support units around Ramadi and Fallujah. Because the Islamic State's activities in the area currently pose the most acute threat, the U.S.-led air campaign will be heavily focused on the area to prevent conventional Islamic State forces from entrenching in Baghdad's urban landscape — a move that would mitigate the effects of airstrikes.

Anbar Province

Anbar Province

The fear is that an offensive would gain momentum here and could easily cover the small distance into Baghdad proper, especially into its predominantly Sunni western neighborhoods. Iraqi security forces have been under enormous strain and have a recent history of catastrophic collapses. However, Baghdad is different. First, Baghdad's protection is one of the military's main priorities, and much of the remaining Iraqi security force is consolidated in and around the city. Additionally, Shiite militias are augmenting the security presence in Baghdad, although their ability to extend force farther west is limited by sectarian tension, so their presence along the Baghdad outskirts is insignificant. Finally, Baghdad is Iraq's capital and the home of a sizable Shiite population that outnumbers the Sunni presence. These factors will likely push security forces in Baghdad to fight harder than in Mosul, for instance, where Iraqi security forces were considered occupiers in Sunni territory.

The Potential for Unconventional Attacks

However, the Islamic State has retained its unconventional reach into Baghdad. The Islamic State has greater depth with its unconventional terrorist arm than with its conventional forces, but it is not as potent. During the past three years, the Islamic State has repeatedly demonstrated the ability to use well-developed Sunni networks to carry out terrorist attacks in Shiite neighborhoods in Baghdad. Some of these attacks have been executed since the fall of Mosul, though in relatively limited numbers. Much of the relative security in Baghdad is due to the activity of Shiite militias and the influx of security forces that occurred when there was a fear that Baghdad could be overrun conventionally. Still, the Islamic State is capable of carrying out terrorist attacks against softer targets in Baghdad.

Additionally, it is possible that the Islamic State or other Sunni militants are trickling into Sunni portions of Baghdad and could attempt a wave of potentially spectacular unconventional attacks. These fighters also could entrench themselves in urban areas, most likely Sunni neighborhoods, and raise their flag for territorial claims. They also could engage in running gunbattles that last for hours, similar to those seen in Kabul

None of these possibilities is necessarily imminent. Moreover, they would not pose an existential threat to Baghdad's security integrity: The city has plenty of security forces, Shiite militias and an 80 percent Shiite population, and much of its critical infrastructure is hardened significantly with a strong overt security presence. Still, if unconventional attacks occur, there will be sensationalist headlines and the perception of collapse. As long as the ensuing panic does not cause a breakdown in the government or local security forces — an unlikely occurrence in Baghdad — there should be no serious overall threat.

The Islamic State's Resilience

If the Islamic State managed to claim some territory in Baghdad, the ensuing security operation would be messy and protracted. The possibility of ethnic cleansing, which could develop from fighting between Shiite security forces and militias in Sunni neighborhoods, poses some concern, particularly in the wake of rumors that such cleansing occured after the recent recapture of Amerli in Salahuddin province. Such ethnic conflict would hinder Baghdad's ability to bring the broader Sunni community back into a working relationship that rejects the Islamic State and Sunni militancy.

Overall, the Islamic State has suffered some minor setbacks and stagnation in its advances in northern Iraq and has responded with what it does best: rapidly massing on a separate front and temporarily overwhelming local security forces. Although this strategy has been effective, its results on any specific front have been limited. In the case of Baghdad, Iraqi security forces are unlikely to be pushed back so far that they lose the city. In a worst-case scenario, they could lose control of some Sunni neighborhoods in western Baghdad, similar to the government losses in portions of Damascus. However, that scenario would not necessarily translate into overall defeat. More realistically, the Islamic State's terrorist networks throughout the capital city represent the group's biggest threat, its enduring capability, and its potential reach.

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