In bloody, grueling months-long campaigns, the Iraqi army has pushed the Islamic State out of major cities such as Mosul, Tal Afar and Haditha.
Now, with ISIS forces in Iraq largely driven west into a stretch of the Euphrates River Valley straddling the Syrian border, Iraqi troops and the U.S.-led coalition are gearing up for a battle to drive ISIS out of towns like Al Qaim, the top Air Force general in Iraq said this week.
Brig. Gen. Andrew Croft, deputy commanding general for Air, Combined Joint Forces Land Component Command, Operation Inherent Resolve, said in an interview with Air Force Times that the coalition is now conducting airstrikes in the Euphrates valley to “shape” the battlefield by taking out weapons centers like car bomb factories and ISIS command, control and communication centers.
He would not speculate when ground operations in the area might begin, but said “it’s coming soon.”
“They‘ll move against multiple areas in the Euphrates River Valley in a multi-axis operation,” Croft said. “The preponderance of ISIS forces, we believe, are in that area ... essentially all the way out east to Rawa.”
And since most of the rest of Iraq has been cleared of ISIS, Croft said the coalition will be able to concentrate aircraft on the Euphrates valley area.
That’s going to be even more crucial as forces in Syria simultaneously push ISIS from west to east, pinching the militants as the Iraqis move west, he said.
“It‘s all going to converge on that one area,” Croft said. “So deconfliction of our own assets, in coordination across an international border, is going to be critical to us. It’s a command and control challenge, and a deconfliction challenge, in many cases, from our own forces. Instead of us operating one operation in Syria and one operation in Iraq, those operations are now converging.”
The Iraqi Security Forces have advanced west from Haditha in recent weeks and ousted ISIS from the towns of Anah and Rayhana, Croft said, and the town of Rawa is their next step.
The impending battle will be similar to the fight for Hawija, Croft said. It’s more rural and spread out than the dense and urban Mosul.
It’ll be crucial to collect good intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance to track exactly where ISIS fighters are versus where civilians are, he said. In the Al Qaim area, one of the larger towns in the region, there is still a lot of civilian activity, which Croft said creates problems.
“Precision strike requires precision intelligence, and so that‘s going to be a continuous effort for us,” Croft said.
The ISF is now dropping leaflets on Al Qaim to tell civilians how to avoid the fighting when it approaches, he said.
“There‘s a constant communication and an effort to separate the civilians from the ISIS forces,” Croft said. “If they are successful ... the requirement for precision fires and small, low-collateral weapons is not as high.”
‘Another nail in the coffin’
ISIS’s ability to pull large forces together to execute military offensives is dwindling, Croft said. He cited a failed attempt by 200 to 250 ISIS fighters in late September to take back Ramadi as an example ― and how the Iraqi army has improved since folding in the face of ISIS’s 2014 blitzkrieg.
The ISIS fighters ― who are believed to have come out of Al Qaim ― massed in the desert southwest of Ramadi with a series of technical vehicles, or improvised fighting vehicles such as civilian pickup trucks mounted with machine guns, Croft said. They bombed two bridges to open their coordinated, planned attack on Ramadi.
However, Iraqi Security Forces, including SWAT-type teams in Ramadi and helicopter forces, reacted quickly and drove ISIS back into the desert, Croft said. About one-third of their forces were killed and all of their vehicles were destroyed, he said, with the help of coalition airpower.
“They didn‘t even get close” to reclaiming the city, Croft said. “It ended up with the destruction of a large portion of that force, which is another nail in the coffin of the ability for them to operate in any large, coherent fashion.”
But that doesn’t mean ISIS is completely driven out of the rest of Iraq. Croft said small bands of ISIS fighters have taken to the desert or other remote areas to evade Iraqi and coalition forces. They could be looking for opportunities to launch relatively small-scale, harassing attacks, Croft said, or attempt a spectacular strike such as a car bomb. But as the Iraqis and the coalition clear out more parts of the nation, it will be harder for them to mass without being spotted.
The conflict between Kurdish peshmerga forces and Iraqi government forces that broke out after the Kurds overwhelmingly voted for independence has also placed U.S. forces allied with both groups in a tight spot.
Croft said that U.S. forces have pulled advise and assist teams that were in Kurdish areas back to bases like Qayyarah West and Irbil. That was partly to ensure U.S. forces don’t get inadvertently caught in the crossfire, he said, but also to avoid giving the impression that they were supporting one side over the other.
“We essentially backed off and just focused our ISR assets on self-protection and situational awareness as to what‘s actually happening in the vicinity of the Kurdish defensive line, as it wraps around up to Northern Iraq,” Croft said. “In an unpredictable situation, we want to lower the risk level. We’re not taking a side.”
The dispute has not affected operations in the western Euphrates River Valley area, he said.
Stephen Losey is the air warfare reporter at Defense News. He previously reported for Military.com, covering the Pentagon, special operations and air warfare. Before that, he covered U.S. Air Force leadership, personnel and operations for Air Force Times.