It is no secret that the extremist al-Qaeda Jihadist group known as ISIS for short, which in the span of weeks has overrun the northern part of Iraq, has grand ambitions to not only preserve its power in the north and central regions, as well as the border with Syria, but to ultimately proceed south where not only Baghdad is located but also the great energy infrastructure of the country: “the grand prize” for ISIS as it would make the extremist group viable and financially self-sustaining.
But how and when will this “Battle for Baghdad” take place?
For the answer we go to a backgrounder prepared by the Institute for the Study of War titled, as expected, “ISIS Battle Plan for Baghdad” which lays it out in detail.
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There are indications that ISIS is about to launch into a new offensive in Iraq. ISIS published photos of a military parade through the streets of Mosul on June 24, 2014 showcasing U.S. military equipment, including armored vehicles and towed artillery systems. ISIS reportedly executed another parade in Hawijah on June 26, 2014.2 These parades may be a demonstration of force to reinforce their control of these urban centers. They may also be a prelude to ISIS troop movements, and it is important to anticipate where ISIS may deploy these forces forward. Meanwhile, ISIS also renewed the use of suicide bombers in the vicinity of Baghdad. An ISIS bomber with a suicide vest (SVEST) attacked the Kadhimiya shrine in northern Baghdad on June 26, 2014,3 one of the four holy sites in Iraq that Iran and Shi’a militias are most concerned to protect. ISIS also incorporated an SVEST into a complex attack in Mahmudiyah, south of Baghdad, on June 25, 2014 in a zone primarily controlled by the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) and Shi’a militias on the road from Baghdad to Karbala.4 These attacks are demonstrations that ISIS has uncommitted forces in the Baghdad Belts that may be brought to bear in new offensives. ISIS’s offensive has not culminated, and the ISIS campaign for Iraq is not over. Rather, as Ramadan approaches, their main offensive is likely imminent.
ISIS seeks to create an Islamic Emirate that overcomes the modern states of Iraq and Syria. The Syrian war began without ISIS, but ISIS succeeded in instigating a sectarian war in Iraq in order to destabilize the state. ISIS has systematically targeted sectarian fault lines in Iraq over the past two years in order to precipitate a civil war, but ISIS also intends to break the Iraqi state permanently so that it cannot recover. This is essential in order to protect the Islamic Emirate from external attack. ISIS may not seek to make Baghdad its capital; Baghdad is far from the center of Iraq’s Sunni heartland and sits along the contested corridor that separates the Sunni and Shi’a majority lands in Iraq. Rather, ISIS likely seeks to destroy the government of Iraq, to destroy the Iraqi Army, and to ensure that Baghdad does not remain a viable Shi’a capital. It is more reasonable to expect that ISIS has a battle plan for Baghdad than to presume that ISIS would not create one because they recognize how difficult the task of controlling the city.
ISIS now has artillery and other indirect fire capability, in addition to heavy machine guns. This is visible in their social media coverage of their acquisitions in Ninewa. ISIS can induce a surface-to-air threat against IA aircraft at Balad Airbase, Taji Base, and Baghdad International Airport that effectively neutralizes Iraq’s air assets. ISIS can also attack fortified positions in downtown Baghdad through medium-range direct fire via the artillery pieces it has seized. ISIS likely intends to strike the Green Zone and other fortress targets that have adequate ground protection. ISIS likely has presence inside Baghdad that can facilitate accurate fire through visual observation, and the emergence of SVESTS on June 26 in lieu of the more detectable SVBIEDs likely illustrates its adaptation to the new Shi’a militia environment. ISIS may also layer explosive attacks through SVBIEDs against checkpoints or infrastructure in order to open temporary movement corridors that will permit ground assault against targets in Baghdad. ISIS may still be designing and sequencing its plan for Baghdad, but from a threat perspective, the most dangerous outcomes that ISIS could precipitate against U.S. interests in Baghdad are feasible. ISIS’s revived capability for spectacular attacks in Baghdad and its ability to harness medium range artillery comes just as the U.S. has placed 300 personnel in country, in addition to those essential personnel already stationed at the Embassy. There is no safe place in Baghdad against the threat of ISIS.
A ground campaign to deny Ramadi and Baghdad to ISIS in the near term and to begin to retake lost territory is critical to overcome the offensive spirit and message of victory that are currently fueling ISIS. The Sunni population in Iraq may very well unite in order to counter ISIS deep within the Sunni heartland if they perceive that ISIS can be defeated, and that their tribes will be protected from ISIS and Iran. The Sunnis are not looking to the government of Iraq for these assurances right now, because they perceive more than ever that Maliki’s government is part of an Iranian axis. Syrian air strikes into Iraq’s Sunni lands only underscore this point. With no army to protect them, and no army that can outmatch ISIS on the ground, the Sunnis are faced with an existential crisis on two-fronts: the threat of ISIS, and the threat of Iran, both assaulting Iraq’s Sunnis with military force. The war in Iraq and the war in Syria have the potential to engulf the region, while ISIS usurps the terrain lost by states that may never recover their former likeness.