BAGHDAD: The Iraqi government has announced that its next battle against ISIS is retaking Anbar province, but analysts say entrenched jihadis and limited Iraqi forces put a full reconquest out of reach for now.
Anbar is by far Iraq’s largest province, shares a border with ISIS-held territory in Syria and has historically been a difficult area to control.
Iraqi security forces and allied paramilitaries are on a high after retaking most of Salahuddin province and its capital Tikrit in recent weeks, but those victories will not be easy to replicate.
“Anbar differs from Tikrit and Salahuddin more broadly because [ISIS] is much more entrenched there,” said Kirk Sowell, publisher of the Inside Iraqi Politics newsletter.
Jihadi fighters had a presence in Anbar long before the June 2014 offensive that saw the government lose a third of the country to ISIS.
“This will have to be a limited-goals campaign to be successful,” Sowell said.
After recapturing Tikrit, some expected government and allied forces to continue their push toward Mosul, which is Iraq’s second city and ISIS’ main hub.
But Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi announced on April 8 that “our next stand and battle will be here in the land of Anbar to completely liberate it.”
Anbar is a vast arid expanse traversed by the Euphrates River, stretching east from the Baghdad governorate to the western borders with Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Syria.
Its capital is the city of Ramadi, while the jihadis hold all of the city of Fallujah, which lies between it and Baghdad.
Fighting has been relentless in the province in recent months but government forces have struggled to make major advances.
It took 10,000 U.S. Marines to seize Fallujah from insurgents a decade ago and analysts agreed that retaking it now would be too big a task for Iraqi forces.
“Anbar, and especially Fallujah, is like Asterix’s village,” said Victoria Fontan, a professor at American University Duhok Kurdistan, referring to an unconquerable town in the French comic book series.
The province is packed with experienced fighters and while some Sunni tribes have allied with the government, others are fighting alongside ISIS or sitting on the fence.
Local knowledge is seen as key to retaking territory along the fertile strip lining the Euphrates, where ISIS has inflicted severe military setbacks to the police and army since June.
“The Anbar operation is likely to be a Ramadi operation,” Michael Knights of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy said.
“The key to controlling Ramadi is to control the ... farmlands around the city. This is what the Iraqi security forces have consistently failed to do for over a year now,” he said.
Fighting is ongoing on Anbar’s eastern edge, where Iraqi regular forces Tuesday launched their latest attempt to retake the Garma area, a 40-minute drive from Baghdad.
A military official from the U.S.-led coalition battling ISIS said Iraqi forces were likely to stick to very specific objectives in a province where thousands of government fighters have perished since 2014.
“The Iraqi security forces will not clean Fallujah. Ramadi will be difficult and even Garma is not guaranteed,” he said.
An army staff brigadier general who is a field commander in the ongoing operation in Garma told AFP that more intensive air support was needed to achieve any results.
“Cutting those supply lines with ground troops is impossible,” he said.
The U.S.-led coalition, which also includes France, Britain and various Arab countries, has been carrying out airstrikes almost daily in Anbar but ISIS has held its ground.
Abadi was on his first trip to the White House as prime minister this week seeking more arms and more strikes from Washington.
The question of who will wage battle against ISIS remains contentious.
Iran-backed Shiite militias are seen as essential to shoring up a still-unsteady military that performed dismally against ISIS last year, but their involvement too deep in the province would alienate some Sunni tribes.
“They are already active in the easternmost areas of Anbar, but I don’t see major militia deployment otherwise,” Sowell said.
Fontan meanwhile warned of the repercussions on Anbar’s borders of a large operation against ISIS there, saying: “The front line will dissolve and asymmetric warfare will replace something much more predictable.”
“They are deluded in thinking that they will take Anbar. The history of the province has shown that when you think it is over and pacified, it isn’t,” she said.