Islamic State fight requires new tactics: Iraqi commanders

BAGHDAD - Iraqi army and police commanders leading an ongoing battle for control of the country's biggest refinery say they cannot defeat Islamic State unless they change tactics to better cope with the insurgents' guerrilla warfare techniques.

BAGHDAD  -  Iraqi army  and police commanders leading an ongoing battle for control of the country's biggest refinery say they cannot defeat Islamic State unless they change tactics to better cope with the insurgents' guerrilla warfare techniques. The sprawling refinery complex near the town of  Baiji  north of  Baghdad  has changed hands several times over many months of fighting, one of the main fronts in  Iraq 's bid to recapture the third of its territory held by the Sunni Muslim insurgents.

The  Iraqi government  has had mixed fortunes since a U.S.-led alliance joined the campaign against Islamic State last year by bombing positions in both  Iraq  and  Syria  where Islamic State has proclaimed a caliphate to rule over all Muslims.

In March, the  army  and its  Shi'ite militia  allies recaptured former dictator  Saddam Hussein 's home town Tikrit in the Tigris river  valley north of  Baghdad . But the fighters responded with their own major victory last month, capturing the city of  Ramadi  in the  valley of Iraq 's other great river, the  Euphrates .

Baiji , just north of Tikrit, is an important test of whether the government forces can reclaim momentum. But they have so far failed to secure victory there against a mobile and hidden enemy that has proven expert in unconventional tactics.

"They are professionals in guerilla warfare, contrary to our forces which follow an old fighting style," said Brigadier General  Nasir al-Fartousi , commander of the interior ministry rapid intervention division tasked with retaking  Baiji .


"We receive fire from one street in  Baiji  and we set a plan to attack this street. And the next day when we start the attack, we are caught off guard by Daesh fighters attacking us from a different street," he said, using an Arabic acronym for Islamic State, also known in English as  ISIS  or ISIL.

"We are seeking to reverse the tide against Daesh and follow the tactic of launching attrition battles they use against us. It’s not easy to make a soldier learn guerrilla fighting tactics in one day and a night."

Spokesmen for the interior ministry and  army  were not available to comment on the remarks.



Iraqi officials say their  army  has improved in the 12 months since soldiers dropped their weapons and fled as Islamic State fighters swept in from  Syria , seized the main northern city  Mosul  and started bearing down the  Tigris toward  Baghdad .

The government's recapture of Tikrit in March was its biggest victory since then, although much of the fighting was carried out not by the military but by the allied  Shi'ite militia  fighters, who are supported by Iran.

When the insurgents responded to the loss of Tikrit by capturing the city of  Ramadi , capital of  Anbar  province along the  Euphrates , U.S. officials including Secretary of Defense  Ash Carter  accused the  Iraqi military  of lacking the will to fight.


The long battle for  Baiji refinery  has given the military an opportunity to demonstrate its mettle. Elite units have repeatedly withstood prolonged sieges and recaptured lost ground. But they have not been able to inflict a decisive blow.

Lieutenant Colonel  Ali al-Jubouri , who was seriously wounded in the refinery last month by a suicide bomber driving a captured  army  Humvee packed with explosives, said the  army  needs to do more to disrupt Islamic State supply lines, rather than just hold out in repeated face-to-face confrontations at  Baiji .

The insurgents control the northern approaches to the town, keeping their supply line open to  Mosul , and the western and southwestern approaches, allowing them to reach it from  Anbar  across the desert.

"What’s the point of retaking a place while the enemy’s supply lines stay out of our control? They can easily send reinforcements, regroup and return to seize control. This is what I call a failed battle," he said.

“We should ask a simple question. Why do we have this scenario? The answer is simple. Daesh is controlling strategic areas with routes linking  Baiji  to both  Mosul  and  Anbar ."

Army  Colonel  Ahmed al-Asadi , part of a security team comprised of the military, police and special forces, said commanders had become too cautious out of desire to please their superiors.

"Commanders avoid losing high casualties, which is now the parameter to judge a successful or failed commander. This is why commanders of the  Baiji  battle give the priority to minimizing casualties among soldiers, versus making quick advances."

The reliance on  Shi'ite militia , known as Hashid al-Shaabi, which are divided among multiple groups, also makes it difficult to control the chain of command, Asadi said.


"Multiple commanderships exist on the ground and unfortunately we have less coordination between the Hashid and its commanders with the military," he said. "Such a situation definitely contributed to the blundering."

Iraqi and U.S. officials say retaking  Mosul  is the key to defeating Islamic State. But that battle is unlikely to start until the  army  gains momentum by capturing strategic parts of  Anbar  and pushing north from  Baiji , fights that will require it to learn how to cope with Islamic State's guerrilla tactics.

Fighters slow the advances of government troops with booby traps in houses and roadside bombs. They evade air strikes by frequently moving positions. One sniper can halt an advancing column. Foreign recruits are dispatched as suicide bombers.

Desert terrain around the refinery and nearby towns is challenging for conventional military forces, and the  army 's air power advantage is limited by anti-aircraft missiles which Islamic State has brought to  Iraq  from  Syria , said Asadi.

Islamic State commanders can also rely on zealous insurgents who would rather die than withdraw.

"They never retreat their positions and their final choice is to detonate the explosive vest they wear," said Fartousi. "We are fighting in a place where bombs and death are at every corner."

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