The Islamic State of Iraq and the Sham’s rapid advance southward to Baghdad after taking control of Mosul just three days ago appears to have been halted outside of the gates of Samarra, home to one of the holiest shrines in Shia Islam.
Iraqi security forces in Samarra blunted the ISIS’ assault from the north late yesterday, stopping an armed convoy from entering the city. The military is said to have deployed aircraft while battling the ISIS vanguard.
The Iraqi military’s stand in Samarra stands in contrast to its performance in Mosul, Tikrit, Bayji, and other cities and towns taken over by the ISIS. Iraqi forces often surrendered or melted away in these cities, leaving behind weapons, ammunition, and police and military vehicles. Thousands of prisoners have been freed during the ISIS onslaught.
The attack on Samarra is the second in a week. On June 5, the ISIS assaulted Samarra from the west, and took control of five neighborhoods before being ejected by the military and police. [See LWJ report, ISIS takes control of areas in central Iraqi city.]
Samarra is home to the al Askaria Mosque, one of the most holy shrines in Shia Islam. Al Qaeda in Iraq, the predecessor of the ISIS, bombed the Golden Dome of the al Askaria Mosque in February 2006, sparking massive sectarian fighting between Iraq’s Shia and Sunnis.
The ISIS has threatened to destroy the mosque if Iraqi forces refuse to withdraw from the city.
The Shia-led Iraqi government will likely make a stand at Samarra, given the importance of the mosque. Additionally, there are reports that Shia militias are beginning to organize and deploy forces to protect religious sites.
According to The New York Times, “at least four brigades, each with 2,500 to 3,000 fighters, had been hastily assembled and equipped in recent weeks by the Shiite political parties to protect Baghdad and the political process in Iraq. They identified the outfits as the Kataibe Brigade, the Assaib Brigade, the Imam al-Sadr Brigade and the armed wing of the Badr Organization.”
ISIS takes control of three towns; clashes reported in Taji
As Iraqi forces make their stand in Samarra, the ISIS was able to take control of the towns of Dhuluiyah, Saadiyah, and Jalula to the southwest. ISIS fighters are said to have overran an airbase in Dhuluiyah and captured hundreds of prisoners.
Further south, reports from Iraq indicate that the ISIS is conducting raids on towns along the road between Samarra and Baghdad. According to Rudaw, a Kurdish-language news outlet, ISIS fighters have battled Iraqi forces in the town of Taji, which is just north of Bagdad. The outcome of the fighting has not been disclosed.
The ISIS may be attempting to interdict the Iraqi military and the Shia militia’s attempts to reinforce units holding out in Samarra and other cities and towns along the road north of Baghdad.
The ISIS is adept at laying IEDs to decimate military convoys as well as using ambushes with small arms, machine guns, and RPGs to interdict supply columns. The ISIS’s control of eastern Anbar province allows it to use the area as a staging ground to launch attacks on Highway 1. Karma, a city in Anbar that is under ISIS control, is just 15 miles due west of Taji.
The recent ISIS advances in northern and central Iraq effectively put the terror group in control of nearly a third of the country. The ISIS already controls most of the large western province of Anbar, save the provincial capital of Ramadi and some small pockets.