OCT. 19, 2015
U.S. and Iraqi Forces Take Offensive Against ISIS on Several Fronts
By MICHAEL R. GORDON and ERIC SCHMITT
BAGHDAD -- Struggling to regain the initiative after a long impasse in the battle against Islamic State militants, the Iraqi government and the American-led coalition are for the first time in months putting military pressure on the jihadists on multiple fronts, officials say.
Supported by increased American air power, Iraqi forces are on the outskirts of Ramadi, pressing to encircle the capital of Anbar Province, which the militants took in May, and cut it off from resupply and reinforcements.
To the north of Baghdad, Iraqi military forces and Iranian-backed Shiite militias are trying to expand their foothold at the Baiji oil refinery after retaking it from the Islamic State on Friday. 
And in northeast Syria, the American military last week said it had parachuted 50 tons of ammunition to Syrian Arab fighters. The intent was that those fighters would join a larger body of Kurdish forces in advancing toward Raqqa, the Islamic State's capital in Syria, and perhaps draw some Islamic State fighters away from Iraq to defend the city.
"We are doing what you always try to do to the enemy and that is force him to fight in more than one direction at the same time," said Lt. Gen. Sean B. MacFarland, who last month became the American commander for the effort in Iraq and Syria. He had previously served in Iraq as a brigade commander who worked with the Sunni tribes in Anbar Province.
The campaign that General MacFarland inherited is not on the timetable originally envisioned. The United States Central Command, which oversees American operations in the Middle East, had once hoped that Mosul, Iraq's second-largest city, would be in the Iraqi government's hands by now.
Instead, the American-led coalition has found itself trying to jump-start a counteroffensive against the Islamic State in a region in which the Russians and Iranians are asserting themselves in neighboring Syria, and Shiite militias remain a potent political force in Iraq. At the same time, Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi of Iraq has been struggling to build up his authority.
Even as the Iraqis have moved on the offensive, they face formidable challenges. Ramadi, for example, is defended by 600 or more militants who have fortified their positions and are still able to sneak fighters to the city on the Euphrates River.
And even if the Iraqis succeed in evicting the Islamic State from many of their strongholds, holding them will be a challenge. While Iraqi tribes can help secure some towns and cities, Iraqi provincial police are also supposed to play an important role. But the training of those police forces is just in the early phases: So far, a small team of Italian Carabinieri has trained just 246 police officers, about half of whom are federal police, officials said.
But after a long lull, partly imposed by scorching heat and Muslim holidays, the Iraqis and their partners are trying to put the militants on the defensive and force them out of some long-held bastions into the open where they can be more readily targeted by airstrikes, Iraqi officials said.
The aim, Iraq's defense minister, Khaled al-Obeidi, said in an interview, is "to busy the enemy on different axes."
As described by American officials and their allies, the overall strategy is less a product of clockwork synchronization than taking advantage of opportunities that have arisen in recent weeks.
The first step to speed up the Ramadi offensive was taken in late August when Mr. Abadi appointed a new head of the Anbar Operations Command, Maj. Gen. Ismail Mahalawi, who he hoped would be more aggressive than his predecessor, who had been wounded in a mortar attack.
Some 10,000 Iraqi troops have been trying to isolate the city, advancing from the north, west, south and southeast. One of their key objectives is a bridge that spans the Euphrates northwest of the city, which Iraqi forces want to take in order to stop the Islamic State from using the river to bring in reinforcements.
For the first time, Iraqi F-16 warplanes with pilots trained in the Arizona desert have joined other allied warplanes in carrying out airstrikes to support Iraqi ground troops, officials said.
The Islamic State fighters holding Ramadi, American officials say, are accomplished in combining terrorist tactics, like the use of suicide car bombs, with more conventional military tactics like rigging houses with explosive traps and packing stretches of road with explosives and then covering the areas with mortar and sniper fire.
To help the Iraqi military forge a path through the fortifications, the United States is providing the Iraqi forces with armored bulldozers and mine-clearing devices in which a cable festooned with explosives is fired across the battlefield and then detonated.
Progress has been slow despite increased supporting fire from American air operations -- about 70 strikes in the past two weeks, according to the Pentagon. An Iraqi unit advanced to an apartment complex on the southern fringe of the city in recent days only to withdraw after the militants counterattacked.
While Iraqi soldiers have been edging toward Ramadi, about 5,000 Iraqi soldiers and national police officers, along with around 10,000 Shiite militia fighters, have been mounting a parallel push in and around the Baiji refinery. Militants are still being pursued in the nearby town of Baiji, where some neighborhoods have been battered by artillery and airstrikes and many electrical cables have been severed.
The refinery itself, a sprawling installation that has changed hands several times in fighting over the past year, has been so damaged it will probably take years to restore it to full use, officials say. But it is still considered an important installation, and its location is strategically vital: Control of the surrounding area would provide a potential steppingstone for any eventual Iraqi offensive against the Islamic State in the northern province of Nineveh, where the militants control the major city of Mosul.
Long-term control of Baiji would also improve the security of the two major Iraqi cities to the south -- Tikrit and Samarra -- and would curtail access to a major road to the southwest that the Islamic State has been using to funnel fighters from Mosul to Anbar.
The Baiji offensive is being overseen by Maj. Gen. Juma al-Jubouri, from the Iraqi military's command center in Salahuddin.
But Iraq and the American-led coalition are not the only ones who have a stake in the success. So important is this juncture of the campaign that Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani, the head of Iran's paramilitary Quds Force, arrived on the scene last week, apparently to help guide some of the Shiite militias that Iran has been supporting, American officials said.
The Baiji offensive is a critical one for Mr. Abadi, who is facing internal political pressures within his Shiite coalition to show some progress and who is dealing with militias who have a mind of their own. Officials say allowing the militias to take a major role in that fight eases some of those tensions and also routes most of the militias away from the Ramadi offensive, where a major presence of the irregular forces might alienate the mostly Sunni population or lead to sectarian abuses.
The Iraqi government's reliance on militia forces there is also partly a reflection of how efforts to train and equip army units, which American officials believe should conduct the main counteroffensive against the Islamic State, have lagged behind goals set last year. That objective was to train 12 brigades, but the readjusted goal is eight, officials said: six Iraq Army brigades and two Kurdish ones.
Still, the participation of the militias is a sensitive issue for the United States, which has made clear that it will conduct airstrikes only to support Iraqi government forces.
At the Americans' insistence, Iraq's counterterrorism services, the federal police and the Iraq Army were given the lead in the Baiji operation. But the Shiite militia fighters have clearly benefited from the weeks of United States bombing.
"Look, we're trying to do this cleanly," said one senior American officer in Washington, meaning supporting only Iraq forces, not the Iranian-trained militias, "but in Iraq, it's just never that clean."
Michael R. Gordon reported from Baghdad, and Eric Schmitt from Washington.