Weekly Security Update, 17 – 23 June 2014

Security IncidentsReporting remains largely interrupted across northern Iraq, which continues to impact on casualty statistics. Levels of recorded violence have nonetheless been consistent with the previous weekly data, with an estimated 445 fatalities reflecting sustained militant activity and counteroffensive ISF operations. Major clashes have continued to focus on Nineveh’s Tal Afar district and territories between Tikrit and Samarra in Salahuddin, as well as areas of southern Kirkuk and northern Anbar province. The main frontlines remain located in areas east of Fallujah, and territories north of Samarra, with both sides using their consolidated bases as launch pads for operations beyond their areas of control. The Sunni offensive has provoked a strong Shia reaction and a remobilisation of Shia militias, which appear to have contained several ISIS assaults on towns of Diyala through support to the ISF. Following Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr’s call to form ‘peace brigades’ to protect Iraq’s shrines and holy sites, tens of thousands of fighters rallied in Baghdad, in a sign of resurgence of the former Mahdi Army which spearheaded the Shia confrontation against US troops during the Iraq war. The ongoing Sunni offensive has also precipitated a reaction from the international community. While the US government insisted it would not send troops to fight ISIS on the ground, US Secretary of State John Kerry stressed the need for a political solution reconciling Iraq’s various sects and ethnicities, in a visit to Baghdad on 23 June. Iran’s Supreme Leader also ruled out meddling directly in the country’s affairs despite their close alliances with Iraqi Shia groups although there have been widespread reports of Iranian advisors working with senior ISF. Meanwhile, the process of forming a government remains in a gridlock, after divisive elections failed to produce a parliamentary majority. PM Nouri al-Maliki has dismissed calls to step down, while many of his rivals accuse his sectarian policies of being responsible for the ISIS swift capture of territories within Sunni-majority governorates.

North

Militants have consolidated their positions across the North. Despite conflicting reports on the status of northern areas and the fluidity of the situation on the ground, ISIS fighters have reportedly overrun Tal Afar and Baiji on 23 June, with accounts of ISF soldiers retreating to neighbouring, Kurdish-controlled Sinjar district. After more than a week of fighting around the refinery, the facility is now said to be controlled by insurgents. As ISIS strengthen their hold on Sunni-majority areas of the North, the situation on the main fronts is expected to remain stagnant. ISF airstrikes on Baiji and Tal Afar are expected to increase in light of the strategic importance of both these towns. ISIS movements across Nineveh, southern Kirkuk and northern Salahuddin are likely to lead to new captures of villages and towns outside government control, with complex tribal landscapes facilitating or preventing ISIS from establishing a permanent presence in certain areas. Violence in Diyala escalated, with local militant cells attempting to repeat events in Mosul in order to seize parts of Baqubah on 18 June. The offensive is expected to continue impacting on levels of violence across northern districts surrounding Baghdad, though ISF operations should confine most of ISIS activity to areas outside the capital.

Central

Baghdad Province saw increased levels of violence, though the capital itself largely avoided the series of mass-casualty VBIED attacks which usually strike its Shia-dominated neighbourhoods every week. This lull was at least partly due to increased security measures inside Baghdad and mobilisation of Shia volunteers to protect the capital, giving a lesser number of opportunities for ISIS to hit civilian targets. The most significant reported incident occurred in Sadr City district, when a car bomb killed eight civilians and injured 52 others. As previously assessed, freedom of movement within Anbar translated into the capture of new territory in western areas of the restive province, including the town of Al Qaim and border crossings with Syria and Jordan. It is likely that the border crossings will continue to change hands. The main areas of confrontation with ISF forces remain located in eastern areas of Fallujah, where positions are expected to remain unchanged over the next days. The complexity of the tribal landscape in Anbar, with powerful local sheiks opposed to ISIS, and heavy ISF shelling on areas captured by ISIS will probably lead to towns changing hands in the coming days, without major impact on the situation near Baghdad.

South

Most of the violence in the south remained concentrated in the mixed province of Babil, where sectarian tensions have been on the rise since the start of the northern Sunni offensive. Amid the usual IED and VBIED attacks on civilians, accounts of prisoner killings perpetrated by policemen have multiplied in recent days, the latest of which occurred on a highway near Hilla and resulted in about 70 fatalities. Though the details of the incident are unclear and government sources conflict with local reports, these killings could have been in retaliation for mass murders of ISF soldiers claimed by ISIS in areas they control. South-eastern provinces remained free of major attacks as a result of continued ISIS focus on northern and central targets, though recent gains in Anbar could lead to a greater vulnerability of targets located near the western desert. The mobilisation of Shia militias, encouraged by influential clerics, should effectively fill the security vacuum left by ISF elements deployed to the North.

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