ISIS Eyes Haditha in western Iraq

Starting on July 6, ISIS has unleashed a wave of suicide car bombings against Iraqi Security Force (ISF) and Jughaifi Sunni tribal fighters in western Iraq’s Haditha district. The attacks included an explosives-laden bulldozer which killed at least seven soldiers. This was the second large-scale ISIS attack in the past 24 hours in the district following yesterday's wave of bombings on the strategically vital Haditha Dam. The outburst, the latest crescendo in a symphony of sporadic violence, has already claimed the lives of at least 17 soldiers and injured at least a dozen more, completely disrupting daily life in one of the final crucial ISF outposts in western Iraq.
Historically, ISIS has made some of its most bombastic announcements and devastating attacks in Iraq during the holy month of Ramadan, including the capture of Mosul and subsequent declaration of a caliphate. This year, the violent attacks in Tunisia and Kuwait have elevated their international profile, but with no major accomplishments in Iraq, security forces need to be prepared for an intense campaign.
The spike in car bombing attacks may be an exploratory step on the part of ISIS to test the vulnerabilities of ISF forces in the city in preparation for a larger operation. In a statement two weeks ago, ISIS spokesman Abu Mohammad Adnani called for increased attacks during Ramadan, specifically targeting the city of Haditha. The destabilization of Haditha would serve as a clear cut victory for ISIS in Iraq before Ramadan ends on July 17.
Haditha faces similar issues that Ramadi, the provincial capital of Anbar, did in the weeks before it fell on May 17. In the hours before ISIS seized Ramadi, scores of ISF soldiers and officers fled the city despite greater numbers and better positioning. Against the expressed will of Haider al-Abadi, Shiite militia heavyweight Hadi Ameri stated that instead of helping to recapture the city, the militias would secure northeastern Anbar to cut off ISIS' supply lines into Baghdad. Over the past few weeks, several leading Shiite militia commanders have unilaterally echoed similar sentiments, undermining national military strategy and usurping government authority.
In this context, a relative lack of support in the city will lead to increasing instability in the area. The statements by militia leaders signal to ISIS that Ramadi, as well as Haditha, no longer hold the priority they once held, making the territory vulnerable to ISIS advances. ISIS' recent uptick in Haditha district attacks also coincides with advances in eastern Syria's Deir ez Zour province, suggesting that the group seeks to strengthen supply lines in the middle Euphrates territory between Iraq and Syria. Such an occurrence would see an increase in the transfer of troops and weapons into Iraq's western Anbar province, further destabilizing the Haditha district.
Allowing ISIS to take over the city will lead to the immediate consolidation of insurgent fortifications, which most likely will include the the placement of sniper positions and the laying of booby traps in every house. In the case of Ramadi, following the city’s seizure the group was able to disrupt water supplies by closing a nearby dam. The move causes daily water supply cuts to government-controlled towns and floods other areas, which ultimately limits the ISF’s freedom of movement and ability to transfer weapons. The Haditha dam, which is of a far greater strategic significance than Ramadi’s, maintains a vital hydraulic power station which has the capacity the deliver 1,000 megawatts of hydroelectricity.
The only three places within Anbar that have remained firmly under government control over the past months are Haditha, the al-Asad airbase, and Habbaniya. Approximately 350 American military advisors are currently stationed in al-Asad and on June 10, Obama ordered that an additional 450 be sent to Habbaniya. If Haditha, the last remaining ISF-stronghold without a US troop presence, falls to ISIS in the same vein as Ramadi the strategic repercussions will be just as severe. From an international perspective the fall of Haditha will further erode the confidence of US security officials in Baghdad’s ability to defend against the group. Following the fall of Ramadi, Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter criticized the Iraqi forces and implied that the ISF has lost the will to fight, creating a diplomatic rupture between Baghdad and Washington.
Thanks to the fortifications ISIS made in Ramadi, retaking the city will cost far more lives than just simply defending it. There is no reason to expect that Haditha will be any different. Rather than losing the city and facing the exponential material and human costs required to win it back over the coming months, the Iraqi establishment would be wise to preemptively halt ISIS advances by bolstering defenses in the area. The US-led Coalition must also step up its effort by increasing airstrikes against nearby ISIS positions. In May, Anbar was the focus of Coalition strikes, with 165 targeting Ramadi alone. In the month of June less than 25 out of the 334 strikes targeted the city. Weapons transfers to loyal tribes who are fighting against ISIS everyday, like the Jughaifi, must be increased and expedited. Shiite militia forces must be whipped into towing the government line, before the government becomes even more dependent on the militiamen, needing them to assist in the liberation of both Ramadi and Haditha.
Ramadi didn’t need to fall. The ISF troops had superior numbers, equipment, and fortifications. But without confidence-building measures from the Iraqi government, Shiite militias, and coalition firepower, the soldiers in Ramadi could keep no confidence in themselves. The will to fight, the vital essence that ISIS harnesses so well, must be matched in the protection of Haditha.