Small gains but slow progress against ISIL for Iraqi forces

Performance on the ground indicate Iraqi forces are far from ready to drive the militants from the vast areas of northern and western Iraq seized nearly six months ago.

Tribal fighters take part in training to prepare for battle against ISIL militants, on the outskirts of Ramadi, west of Baghdad, on Sunday. Ali Al Mashhadani / Reuters
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Baghdad // Iraq’s military is making slow progress in recovering from its catastrophic defeat by ISIL, allowing militants to dig in and bolster defences in areas under their control.

Airstrikes by the US-led coalition have given the Iraqi forces much needed respite but their performance on the ground suggests they remain far from ready to drive the militants from the vast areas of northern and western Iraq seized nearly six months ago.

America’s top-ranking military officer said last week that Iraqi forces were doing a better job now, but an effort to move into Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, or to restore the border with Syria would require more complex operations.

After making the comments before congress, Gen Martin Dempsey, chairman of the US joint chiefs of staff, was in Iraq over the weekend visiting US troops, commanders and talking with Iraqi leaders to get what his spokesman said was a “get a better sense of how the campaign is progressing”.

His visit, the first to Iraq since the air raids against ISIL began in August, came as the United States was drawn deeper into the conflict, with Barack Obama recently announcing that 1,500 more troops will be sent to the country.

The Pentagon, meanwhile, has plans to establish an expeditionary “advise and assist” centre in Erbil, capital of Iraq’s northern Kurdish region. The United States is also expected to train nine Iraqi security forces brigades and three Kurdish peshmerga brigades.

In a move said by the government to improve the military’s readiness and to fight corruption, prime minister Haider Al Abadi last week relieved 26 officers of their command, pensioned off 10 and appointed 18 new commanders.

But while US plans to train the Iraqis are yet to bear fruit, the Iraqi military and security forces have been making modest progress, recapturing in recent weeks a string of villages and small towns. Last week, they scored their biggest victory when they retook the oil refinery town of Baiji after a three-week battle. However, the advance of government forces on the refinery, about 20 kilometres north of the town, has been halted just 500 metres short of the complex.

The refinery, Iraq’s largest, has been successfully defended for months by an army contingent supplied and reinforced from the air. But Iraqi forces have failed to break the militants’ siege. The road to the facility has also been heavily mined, forcing a standoff that is now in its fourth day.

Even as the government forces were partially in control of Baiji, about 250km north of Baghdad, a suicide bomber earlier this month slammed his explosives-laden truck against a convoy carrying a police general, Faisal Al Zamel, the second-most senior officer in the Baiji campaign.

It was a massive blow, since Al Zamel was among the country’s best commanders in the security forces and showed the laxity of security around a senior officer in a war zone.

Baghdad, in the meantime, is being rocked daily by bombings blamed on ISIL, maintaining tension in the city and reinforcing the notion that the extremist group has sleeper cells inside the capital. Most of the bombings are aimed at soft targets, like outdoor markets or residential areas, but they underline the long-held belief that the hundreds of checkpoints dissecting the city do not do enough to stop the bombings.

One bombing on Sunday, however, indicated that even the most heavily protected parts of the city are vulnerable. A car bomb that went off in the car park next to the main checkpoint on the airport road injured five people but killed no one, in the first infiltration of that area in several years.

Security officials, however, say the bombing campaign in Baghdad could at least in part be meant to lift morale among ISIL militants to make up for the series of defeats they had been dealt in recent weeks. But security analysts here also speculate that with the best men fighting on a multitude of fronts outside the capital, the militants are finding it relatively easy to carry out the attacks.