Isis stalemate forces US into a cold assessment of Iraq government and other potential allies

Patrick Cockburn

19 April 2015

As Iraqi government forces battle Isis for control of the country's largest oil refinery at Baiji and the city of Ramadi, doubts are being raised about the national army's long-term strength and cohesion.

Isis suicide bombers had blasted their way through the refinery's defences and taken over oil facilities, including storage tanks, a technical institute and a distribution point, before they were driven back on Saturday. While some 90,000 refugees choke the roads to Baghdad as they flee the fighting in Ramadi [1] on the Euphrates river, the government says it has recaptured the giant complex at Baiji with the aid of US air strikes.

Sources in Salahudin province, where the refinery is situated, say that some fighting is still going on between Isis militants and the Iraqi Army's "Golden Division", which is battling alongside Shia paramilitaries in the south and west of the oil complex.

Iraqi forces appear to be holding their own in the latest fighting but Isis is seeking to show its loss of the city of Tikrit in March was only a temporary set-back. The government suffers from a shortage of combat-ready regular army soldiers and the more numerous Shia militiamen have been sent as reinforcements to both Ramadi and Baiji. "The Iraqi army is not really coming together again after the defeats of last year," an Iraqi source told The Independent. "Even the Americans are coming to believe that it cannot be rebuilt. There may be only five Iraqi army brigades [15,000 soldiers] which are really effective."

While the US has been reluctant in the past to use its airpower in support of Shia miltias, it appears they may have had no choice recently but to target Isis units engaged in fighting against the Iranian-backed irregulars.

This would be an important failure for the Iraqi government and its western allies, who had hoped to recreate a national army that is less sectarian than the Shia militias and more acceptable to the Sunni community.

But not all the news is bad for the government. It has so far held onto its enclave in Ramadi, capital of the overwhelmingly Sunni Anbar province, which once had a population of 600,000. The failure of Isis to capture Baiji, which produced 175,000 barrels a day of refined product but has not operated since last June, will also be grounds for optimism. US airpower makes it difficult for Isis to gain the spectacular victories it won before the air campaign began last August.

The Iraqi army even briefly captured Baiji last year but lost it in a counter-attack.

The situation in Ramadi looks less hopeful for the government. Isis have held part of the city since last year and their latest offensive has taken over areas previously held by Iraqi forces. Much of the population had already fled because of the fighting, combined with shortages of electricity, water and the high price of food. Even when there is no violence, supply trucks have difficulty reaching Ramadi past Isis patrols and checkpoints.

The government and Isis are both strong enough to gain successes where conditions are most favourable to them. The fighting in Iraq in April shows that the capture of Tikrit and the killing last week of Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri, once a senior lieutenant of Saddam Hussein, has not broken the military stalemate. Douri was a famous figure in Iraq, but his Jaish Naqshbandi movement has rapidly faded in areas under Isis control.

General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, attracted criticism in the US last week when he said that he was more concerned about Baiji than Ramadi. "I would much rather that Ramadi not fall, but it won't be the end of the campaign should it fall," he said, adding that Baiji, as Iraq's biggest refinery, was "a more strategic target and that's why in fact the focus is on Baiji".

The current Isis offensive has not succeeded in its main objectives in Ramadi and Baiji. But it has shown that it retains its offensive capability and its conscription of men from the population under its control means it can launch attacks on many fronts at once.