- Joint security forces participating in Operation Sudanese Martyr have made gains in clearing Fallujah’s Karma sub-district of ISIS militants, but the organization maintains a strong hold over the city of Fallujah and major population centers in western areas of Anbar province.
- International Coalition airstrikes began targeting ISIS militants in Tikrit and surrounding areas in support of joint security forces, prompting a split between Popular Mobilization Units (PMUs), with some choosing to boycott the offensive to clear the city.
- Attacks on civilians in “cleared” areas highlight the failure of joint security forces to provide safety to the general population and the need to maintain a security presence in these areas following major combat operations.
- There are very few indications that the Iraqi central government is taking the humanitarian crisis in the country seriously. Very little aid is reaching those who need it most, especially in repatriated areas.
- ISIS militants are resorting to extreme measures to maintain order in Mosul, including increased public executions and an increased security presence. There are indications that the organization is preparing to defend the city from a spring offensive by joint security forces.
Operation Sudanese Martyr enters its second phase in Karma sub-district after joint security forces secure the Japanese Bridge and International Road east of Ramadi. Developments in western Anbar indicate that the Iraqi central government will face complex challenges in clearing ISIS from the province.
On March 21, a PMU field commander, Juma Faza’a al-Jamili, announced that joint security forces had surrounded the sub-district of Karma and were preparing to clear it of ISIS militants. In Amiriyat Fallujah sub-district, south of Fallujah city, ISIS militants began constructing berms and digging trenches to block a potential advance by joint security forces from the sub-district toward the city.
On March 22, the head of the security and defense committee in the Council of Representatives, Hakim al-Zamili, and the commander of Baghdad Operations, Lt. Gen. Abdul Amir al-Shammari, visited Karma to review ongoing operations. Zamili encouraged officials in cleared areas to begin reconstruction efforts with support from the central government. In addition, Shammari called for local police and families to return to the cleared areas. On the very same day, the head of the Iraqi Awakening Council, Wesam al-Hardan, stated that ISIS militants had kidnapped about 100 former members of the Awakening in Karma, a clear indication that the sub-district remains unsafe.
On March 23, joint security forces launched the second phase of Operation Sudanese Martyr across the Japanese Bridge to clear the areas of Albu Shehab and Albu Soda. This phase will continue to be supported by airstrikes from the International Coalition. In the first hours of the advance, joint security forces cleared the International Road between the Japanese Bridge and areas to the east.
On March 25, the head of the culture and information committee in Anbar province, Ayyad Amash, stated that the central government needed to joint arm security forces and anti-ISIS tribal forces and protect civilians in future operations. In addition, Sheikh Gaood Nimrawi of the Albu Nimr tribe suggested that ISIS had planted over 1000 IEDs throughout areas that it controls in Anbar province, including in Fallujah, Karma, Qaim, Hit, and Rawa.
New challenges emerge in the Tikrit offensive as the International Coalition begins supporting joint security forces following an extended pause in operations.
On March 22, a PMU spokesman, Yousef al-Kilabi, stated that over 1,000 ISIS militants were trapped in Tikrit and that they had booby trapped areas of the city in an effort to prevent joint security forces from entering neighborhoods.
On March 24, in the face of a stalled operation, the Iraqi central government began considering whether or not to ask the International Coalition to conduct airstrikes in support of the offensive. The vice chairman of the security committee in the Salah al-Din provincial council, Khalid Khazraji, stressed that the International Coalition’s involvement would be beneficial to operations, but that the decision was up to the Iraqi central government.
On March 25, the secretary-general of the Badr Organization, Hadi al-Ameri, attributed the pause in operations in Tikrit to the need to protect civilians in the city. He also refuted the notion that joint security forces needed the support of the International Coalition in the offensive and argued that the Iraqi central government had not consulted with PMUs regarding its decision of whether or not to ask the Coalition to conduct airstrikes.
On March 26, the US State Department announced that the International Coalition would begin conducting airstrikes in support of the Tikrit offensive. The airstrikes would target ISIS militants precisely and avoid unnecessary damage to homes and infrastructure. France was the first nation to conduct airstrikes, targeting ISIS militants in the Presidential Sites in southern Tikrit.
MP Badr al-Fahl from Salah al-Din province stated that 500 local forces would participate in the final stages of the offensive. He also indicated that joint security forces would move on four main axes of advance: from Awja sub-district in the south toward the city center, from al-Diom region in the west toward the Zahor neighborhood, from the Structures neighborhood in the north toward the Industrial neighborhood, and from al-Alam sub-district across the Tigris River toward the city center.
In response to the Iraqi central government’s decision to allow the International Coalition to conduct airstrikes in Tikrit, Ashaib Ahl al-Haq, Qatab Hizbullah, and the Peace Brigade, three Iranian-backed PMUs, withdrew from the offensive. The Badr Organization also considered withdrawing from the offensive. This represents a diminished capability of joint security forces to push into Tikrit, even with International Coalition backing.
Despite continued offensives in Salah al-Din and Anbar, populations in “cleared” areas remain at risk of attack and exploitation by ISIS militants and human rights abuses by joint security forces.
On March 21, joint security forces clashed violently with ISIS militants in the village of al-Mazraa, south of Baiji, following a mortar attack on the village. Just last week, Khaz’al Hammad, a member of the Salah al-Din provincial council warned that more than 200 families in the area were under the threat of an attack from ISIS militants.
On March 22, Sheikh Ghalib al-Nafous of the Bani Qais tribe called on Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi to send reinforcements to the village. He noted that 300 families were currently under siege by ISIS militants.
On March 23, Nafous agreed to the return of 150 families to the village to provide added security. Military leaders in Samarra Operations Command said that they were prepared to provide weapons to the volunteers.
On March 24, joint security forces clashed with ISIS militants, killing 7 of them. In mortar attacks launched against the village earlier in the day, 1 civilian was killed and 16 others were injured.
On March 26, joint security forces clashed with ISIS militants, killing 13 of them. In addition, 2 members of the joint security forces were killed.
On March 21, ISIS militants stole thousands of tons of wheat being stored in the sub-district of Riyadh, near Hawija, for sale in Mosul and other areas under ISIS control in order to supplement for the loss of oil revenues due to the Salah al-Din offensive. In eastern Salah al-Din, Diyala provincial police spokesman Col. Ghalib Attiya announced that joint security forces were in control of the border areas between Salah al-Din and Diyala, which had been previously used as safe havens for launching attacks into Diyala.
On March 22, the vice chairman of the security committee in the Salah al-Din provincial council, Khalid Khazraji, accused PMUs of burning homes in al-Daur district, east of Tikrit, during operations to clear ISIS militants from the district. He stressed that groups that partake in these human rights abuses needed to be held accountable for their actions. In addition, an MP for Salah al-Din province, Dhia al-Douri, urged restraint from joint security forces in burning homes believed to contain IEDs and called for an increased engineering effort to properly disable IEDs in these homes.
On March 23, Khazraji announced that an investigation would be launched into claims that foreigners have been fighting with the PMUs in the offensive.
On March 26, an IED detonated in the village of al-Farhata, south of Ishaqi sub-district, killing 7 civilians who were returning to their home after being displaced by ISIS militants. The incident serves as further evidence that clearing operations have not been thorough in removing booby traps left by ISIS militants in residential areas.
On March 23, reports specified that 7 IEDs had exploded in landfills in the sub-district of Abu Sayda in the past 2 months, signaling continued failure by security forces to protect local populations. Unidentified gunmen also attacked and killed an advisor the governor of Diyala province in central Baquba.
On March 26, an IED detonated in the village of Zagna, north of Baquba, killing 1 civilian. Unidentified gunmen later attacked the home of a Zagna resident, killing 3 civilians. In Muqdadiya, unidentified gunmen attacked and killed a teacher, Ismail al-Jubouri. And in Baquba, unidentified gunmen attacked a car at the Jerusalem intersection, outside the airport, killing 1 civilian and injuring 2 others.
On March 21, ISIS militants launched mortar rounds and Katyusha rockets on the al-Baghdadi residential complex, killing 2 civilians and injuring 5 others.
On March 22, reports from western areas of Anbar indicated that ISIS militant were preventing civilians from fleeing Hit, Anah, and Qaim. As recently as last week, the Iraqi military dropped leaflets over some of these areas urging residents to leave before military operations begin in the coming weeks and months.
On March 23, ISIS militants launched mortar rounds and Katyusha rockets into al-Baghdadi sub-district, killing 4 civilians and 2 members of the security forces and injuring 6 others. Reports indicate that the mortar rounds and rockets were being launched from areas under ISIS control across the Euphrates River. In response to these attacks, Sheikh Mal Allah Barzan al-Obeidi met with Iraqi Defense Minister Khaled al-Obeidi, who instructed joint security forces to launch an operation to clear the opposite bank of the Euphrates of ISIS militants with support from Iraqi Army Aviation.
On March 24, the governor of Anbar province, Suhaib al-Rawi, reported that 2,400 homes had been destroyed by ISIS militants in Ramadi and called on the Iraqi central government to begin planning for reconstruction efforts in the city.
The Iraqi central government has made modest efforts to deliver much needed aid to areas that have been cleared of ISIS militants, specifically in Salah al-Din. In addition, efforts are also being made to return displaced Iraqis to areas that have been cleared of ISIS.
On March 22, the Ministry of Commerce delivered 250 tons of food to resident in al-Alam sub-district, east of of Tikrit, which has been recently cleared of ISIS militants and secured by joint security forces.
On March 24, an official from Salah al-Din’s development department, Abdullah al-Jubouri, announced that 700 families from al-Alam sub-district had returned to their homes.
On March 25, reports indicated that over 3000 families had returned to al-Alam sub-district from several areas in Iraq, including from Kirkuk province. Meanwhile, officials in Kirkuk warned of a shortage of drinking water in the summer due to overpopulation. In Baghdad, the Council of Ministers tasked the Iraqi central government with finding a solution to growing slums in areas of Baghdad, largely a result of IDPs living outside of camps.
A spring offensive in Mosul is likely, although not guaranteed, and tensions are rising in the province and surrounding areas between ISIS and local populations as clashes increase between Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga and ISIS militants in rural areas.
On March 21, Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga repelled an attack on the village of Taslaqaf, north of Mosul, killing more than 25 ISIS militants and wounding dozens more. In Mosul, ISIS executed 5 members of the Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga just 24 hours after executing 3 other members.
Meanwhile, the secretary-general of the Ministry of Peshmerga, Jabbar al-Yawar, responded to criticism that the town of Sinjar had not been cleared of ISIS militants despite ongoing, small-scale operations in the district. He cited that the leadership “had decided to implement the military mission step-by-step” to avoid unnecessary losses in clashes with ISIS militants.
On March 22, ISIS militants forcibly entered the village of Mirko, south of Erbil, and armed 60 Arab youth to fight against Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga forces. In Mosul, ISIS kidnapped 3 Muslim clerics on charges that they refused to teach ISIS practices and executed 4 civilians in the Bab al-Tob area of the city on charges that they “rejected the teachings of the organization”.
On March 23, ISIS militants executed a news correspondent and stoned a man and a woman to death for violating ISIS regulations. In addition, ISIS ordered the removal of all Qura’anic verses and the name of the Prophet Mohammed from mosques in Mosul, another example of the destruction of cultural diversity and local heritage. Local sources also noted that male ISIS militants had “withdrawn” from patrolling the streets and were replaced by armed woman loyal to ISIS, but no reason for the change was given.
On March 24, ISIS militants destroyed 13 Christian homes in Tall Kayf, north of Mosul, after looting the contents of the homes.
On March 25, ISIS reinforcements arrived in Mosul, another indication that the organization is preparing for a spring offensive against the city. East of Mosul, Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga, with support from the International Coalition, repelled attacks by ISIS militants in the areas of Ba’ashiqa and Khazer.