BAGHDAD—Last week, the Iraqi army said it had retaken a town the government said was a base for Sunni jihadists.
Baghdad’s stated victory was short-lived.
Two days later, Sunni extremists from the Islamic State drove five Humvees into the town, Jurf al-Sakhar, and blew themselves and others up, setting off a new round of fighting to control the town.
On Monday, the government’s retaliatory airstrikes killed 27 people, a local security official said.
The fight for Jurf al-Sakhar within what U.S. forces in Iraq once called the “Triangle of Death”—a major combat zone during the American occupation—shows how Iraqi forces are struggling to stave off the insurgents encroaching on the capital.
While in the north the government has blunted the Islamic State’s drive toward the capital beyond Tikrit, the militants are pushing the frontline toward Baghdad from the south.
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Jurf al-Sakhar is a case in point. Iraqi military officials say majority Sunni towns in the province bordering Baghdad in the south, such as Jurf-al-Sakhar, have become command posts for the Islamic State, an al Qaeda spinoff that used to call itself the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham.
The town, in Babyl province, has a strategic significance out of proportion to its 50,000 population. It borders Anbar province, which is held by Sunni insurgents, giving it a pipeline to fighters and supplies. And it lies on the highway that links Baghdad to the Shiite holy cities of Najaf and Karbala.
In the mid-2000s, the U.S. spent more than $1 million on development and reconstruction projects in Jurf al-Sakhar in a bid to bring stability to the town and win the loyalty of its residents to the central government. The town was among the Sunni militant hot spots that the U.S. military subdued, temporarily at least, during its military surge.
Now, a report on the state-owned Iraqi Media Network, using the Arabic acronym for the Islamic State, Da’esh, says the once religiously mixed town is now “a hotel for Da’esh in the heart of the Euphrates” and “the eastern flank of Fallujah”—the insurgent stronghold in Anbar.
The airstrikes on Monday reflected that policy. It is not clear how many among the dead were militants, but local media reported at least one child was killed. Human rights groups have begun to criticize the Iraqi government for bombing civilian areas in its campaign against insurgents.
Human Rights Watch last week said it documented at least 75 civilians killed and hundreds wounded in government airstrikes—at times using the crude improvised explosives known as barrel bombs—on the cities of Fallujah, Beiji, Mosul, and Tikrit since June 6.
The military operations north of Baghdad are raging, but the battle lines are mostly static.
In interviews, military and security officials from the provinces of Anbar, Salaheddine, and Diyala—all with active battles with Islamic State—said Iraqi forces were struggling to adjust to shifting militant tactics. Those tactics include fake army checkpoints and a broader deployment of snipers, said Staff Maj. Gen. Jamil Al-Shimmari of the Diyala Operations Command.
“Both sides are attacking strongly…and both sides are frequently changing their plans,” a security official from Anbar said. “That led to a freeze in the front line, in which it seems no one is progressing.”
In Salaheddine and Diyala, pro-government Shiite militias have taken the lead in the fight against the militants, other officials and locals said.
“The coordination between different security agencies is still not that good. We are having organized gang wars here,” a senior security official from the Samarra command center said.
Iraqi forces are focused on repelling a militant advance south from Tikrit to Samarra, which lies on the highway to Baghdad. “We are trying our best not to have civilian casualties,” the official said.
The Islamic State is now targeting roads and installations in Samarra, in Salehddine province, where the bombing of a Shiite shrine in 2006 started the country’s violent descent into sectarian bloodshed. The government is hitting back with airstrikes, the official said. Military officials believe Samarra is the Islamic State’s next big target in their attempt to push southward toward Baghdad.
A new Islamic State video that circulated online on Monday purportedly showed scenes of execution of Iraqi soldiers in an apparent warning to the forces of what awaits them if they press on their fight. One commander in the video tells fighters the takeover of Samarra would be part of a successful campaign at the end of which heaven in paradise awaits them.
Islamic State militants on Tuesday blew up a bridge over a Tirgris River tributary that connects Samarra to Tikrit in what a local security official described as a spectacular operation started under the cover of dark a day earlier.
Militants swam up to the bridge and wove explosives all along one outer side of the bridge, the official said. When the bridge exploded, a manned army checkpoint positioned there plunged into the water.