The Islamic State offensive against the Iraqi town of Haditha underscores Geopolitical Futures’ model that the transnational jihadist movement’s reversal in Ramadi is a tactical one. It further reinforces our view that IS behaves like a professional army, well-versed in the art of an orderly retreat in the face of overwhelming attacks. That it continues to sustain the pressure on Ramadi through suicide bombings and that it is going after Haditha highlights its capability to rapidly regroup and strike back. This situation speaks volumes about how difficult it will be to uproot IS from Iraq and the fallacy that IS has been defeated.
Reports, quoting residents and tribal militiamen, surfaced on Jan. 5 about an intense battle that has been raging in Haditha – the target of a major IS assault that began over the weekend. This fresh offensive comes within days of Iraqi forces taking Ramadi, the capital of Iraq’s largest Sunni province, Anbar, from IS control. It is difficult to assess the reality but reports suggest both sides have suffered dozens of casualties. Located in the same province, 90 miles northwest of Ramadi, Haditha is a strategic town close to the country’s second largest dam. It is one of the last outposts of the Iraqi government and has been encircled by IS for a year.
The attempt to take Haditha and IS’ retreat from Ramadi is driven by the need to demonstrate that the Islamic State’s loss of Ramadi is not an indication that the jihadists are weakening. By focusing on Haditha, IS seeks to pull back and reinforce its core turf in Nineveh province and further west across the border in Syria. It is noteworthy that IS is able to fight a two-front war both on the western and eastern peripheries of the cross-border territories it controls.
The battles in Anbar come at the same time the group is engaged in fighting in eastern Aleppo against the Syrian Kurd-dominated Syrian Democratic Front. At the same time, it is able to absorb western airstrikes in both countries. Troops from the Iraqi army’s 7th Division fighting in Haditha have referred to IS attacks on the town as the “most violent” they have seen in this area. IS opponents are describing the assault on Haditha as an attempt to distract from its loss of Ramadi, which is true but only a partially.
That IS made the decision to withdraw from Ramadi and strike hard at Haditha is an indicator of the group’s ability to rapidly open up a new front. The magnitude of the assault is as such that Sunni tribes have asked the Shia-dominated government in Baghdad to send reinforcements to protect the town. This means that, while Ramadi was a key success for the Iraqi military, holding the town and making further inroads into IS-controlled territory is going to be very tough.