ISIS Counteroffensives across Iraq May Spread to Baghdad and Jordan

The first week of the grand offensive designed to liberate Mosul from the Islamic State showed gaps in the thinking of the strategists at the US Central Command.
They made the mistake of designing the conquest of Iraq’s second city according to the same format as the previous coalition campaigns for the capture of Falluja and Ramadi from the same enemy.
ISIS caught them off guard because its strategists – or rather, their hired Iraqi generals late of the Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein’s army – were one step ahead. Having spent 13 years closely watching Americans at war in their country, they had developed tactics for striking at their weak points for a punishing counteroffensive.
And so, while officials in Washington envisaged the coming liberation of Mosul as a major step on the road to the final demise of the Islamic caliphate founded by Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi in 2014, ISIS was planning to trap the US-led coalition in a total war across Iraq and beyond. Eventual spillover into Jordan and Saudi Arabia cannot therefore be ruled out.
The consequences of the opposing strategies were immediately evident.
While the US-led Iraqi army and Kurdish Peshmerga forces were preoccupied in clearing the way to Mosul by laboriously cleaning out mostly uninhabited villages and towns, ISIS fanned out for surprise assaults on strategic routes and major towns in northern, eastern and western Iraq.
The Islamists were already thinking ahead to the potential loss of Mosul, should the coalition succeed in driving them out, and setting the scene for a wider-ranging confrontation.
Already in the first week of the Mosul operation, ISIS overran the Iraqi-Kurdish oil city of Kirkuk. The Baghdad government tried hard to belittle this setback. However, the raid had obviously been well planned and effectively executed.
The clashes continued even after a combined coalition effort to contain the flames was mounted by the combined strength of the US air force and special forces, the (Patriotic Union of Kurdistan) PUK’s “Dizha Tiror” counter-terrorism force, Turkmen fighters and two Iraqi Shiite militias, the Badr Organization and the Population Mobilization fighters.
For the Americans, this battle laid bare some of the more dangerous gaps in the coalition’s military efforts:
1. ISIS had thought ahead and concentrated fighters in different parts of Iraq ready to strike coalition forces to their rear even before they stepped into Mosul.
2. Something was badly amiss with the US, Iraqi and Kurdish intelligence machinery, which failed to pick up on those ISIS movements and, when they did, identified them mistakenly as small knots of jihadists on the run from the coming showdown in Mosul. In truth, the “escapees” had been distributed with deliberate intent for predetermined combat tasks.
3. The ISIS spy networks are more efficient. Jihadist commanders are receiving a steady stream of intelligence in northern, eastern, western and central Iraq – not just from Islamist sleeper cells, but also from local Sunni populations. The US-Iraqi planners miscalculated when they counted on local Sunni civilians being eager to pitch into the effort to defeat ISIS.
4. The Islamists were so bucked up by their easy success in Kirkuk that, without wasting a moment, they launched three more major assaults with a view to causing maximum pain to the main coalition participants.
Saturday, Oct. 22, while still fighting in Kirkuk, two other jihadist groups stormed into Laylan, a small town 21 km from the oil city, and seized the junction of the 2nd, 3rd and 24th routes, thus severing Kirkuk from the Iraqi capital of Baghdad.
Other Islamist squads were meanwhile well on their way to two further scenes. In northern Iraq, they came close to overwhelming the highly strategic town of Sinjar and the next day, Oct. 10, the western Iraqi town of Rutba, 700 km from Mosul, was in jihadist hands.
Sinjar near the Syrian border was the headquarters of the reserve army the Kurdish Peshmerga taking part in the Mosul operation was building up. It was drawn from Kurdish militiamen from Syria and Turkish PKK (Kurdish Workers Party) combatants streaming in from their mountain strongholds in northern Iraq.
Although the clashes continue, ISIS is beginning to force the Kurdish reservists to start retreating to the autonomous Kurdish Region’s capital of Irbil. But the Islamists have already profited by preserving an open border to Syria and their access to Raqqa.
The fall of Rutba was no less damaging to the coalition effort. It has left ISIS in position to cut off the important highway link between Baghdad and Amman, brought the conflict up to Jordan’s back door, and restored the Islamists to a position of strength in the Sunni tribal province of Anbar in western Iraq, from which they were more or less ousted last year.
This was another blow to American hopes that Iraq’s Sunni Muslims would come aboard for the battle against ISIS in Mosul.
These ISIS offensives have drained the coalition’s strength away from its primary mission. Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar Al-Abadi, his army and US forces in Iraq have too little manpower to retake Rutba and block the Islamists’ path to Baghdad – unless they pull troops away from Mosul.
Inside Baghdad too the Iraqi army is short of boots on the ground to defend the capital against ISIS inroads, whether they comes as an assault from Diyala Province to the east – or a local attack from within the city.

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