On November 14, Iraqi military personnel, Shiite militiamen, and Sunni Arab tribesmen reportedly gained complete control of the strategic city of Baiji in Salahaddin Province after weeks of fighting against Islamic State (IS) militants. Numerous military officers, politicians, and Iraq’s state TV said the city was back in the government’s hands. Reports indicated that the campaign to take Baiji was led by Hadi Ameri, the head of the Iranian-backed Shiite Badr militia. It reportedly began a month ago, when security forces and pro-government fighters pressed north to Baiji, aiming to cut off the defenders’ supplies and take the city from the south and west. Recent weeks saw a steady flow of neighborhoods in Baiji fall to government forces. It now appears the offensive has finally broken IS in the area.
Reports now indicate that government forces are pushing north, past the city, to relieve their comrades holding the strategic Baiji refineries. The refineries are the largest in Iraq. The complex has been under siege by IS for months, and was subjected to numerous assaults.
The reported taking of Baiji marks another strategic step forward for the Iraqi government and its allies. It is the largest locale retaken by government-backed forces. Although setbacks are continuously recorded in many areas of Iraq, recent weeks have seen several gains for the Iraqi government. For instance, IS has seemingly put a hold on its offensives in Anbar Province, although it still controls vast swathes of territory and arguably maintains the initiative there. South of Baghdad, pro-government forces largely cleared the district of Jurf al-Sakhr in northern Babil Province. This region, long considered a militant stronghold, posed a serious security threat to Baghdad, eastern Anbar, and the Babil and Karbala provinces. Reports from November 14, meanwhile, indicated that the government is aiming to press on from Jurf al-Sakhr to secure territory up to Amiriyat al-Fallujah in Anbar Province. Reports indicate that the taking of Jurf al-Sakhr enabled the government to redeploy its forces and invigorate its campaign to take Baiji.
Baiji remained in IS’ hands since June, and served to support frequent attacks on the nearby refineries to the north and further IS control over much of northern Salahaddin Province. It also lies on the main highway between Baghdad and Mosul, IS’ main stronghold in Iraq. This allowed IS more secure lines of communication and supply between Mosul to Tikrit. Taking and then holding Baiji will serve to further isolate IS forces in Tikrit, to the south, and its surrounding areas. Government forces will likely intensify efforts to constrict IS’ supply lines to Tikrit. By enveloping Sunni jihadists in Tikrit, this in turn could relieve the threat to Shiite forces defending Samarra. Therefore, and once military planners consider that the Baiji district is largely secured, fresh offensives against Tikrit may ensue.
Despite the government asserting that city is under their control, fighting is likely to continue in and around Baiji over the coming days. Pockets of resistance likely remain. This is underscored by reported Iraqi announcements by loud-speaker, urging residents to remain indoors. IS is also liable to launch asymmetric attacks against government-backed forces or suspected collaborators in Baiji, including suicide attacks utilizing explosive-laden vehicles. Lastly, there also remains the possibility of extrajudicial killings by the advancing forces.