AL-GARMA, Iraq — With the high-profile battle for Tikrit underway 100 miles to the north, a militia commander and his men were working on a recent afternoon to secure the gains they’d been making against ISIS to far less fanfare. They felt that their fight — on the edge of Anbar province, home to some of the darkest scenes for U.S. soldiers during the Iraq War — was even more important to winning the struggle against the militants. ISIS has controlled the sprawling province for more than a year, taking the key city of Fallujah well before it grabbed headlines with its summer onslaught in Iraq. “We call it the head of the snake,” said the commander, who gave the nom de guerre Hajji Salem.
With the battle for Tikrit largely won, according to the Iraqi government, its forces and the Shiite militia fighting alongside them are a step closer to a promised offensive to retake the northern city of Mosul — the Iraqi heart of ISIS’s self-styled caliphate. But fighters on the front in Anbar and analysts tracking the conflict say that ISIS's continued hold over the province promises to complicate that effort. The difficulty the government has faced in Anbar may also be a grim preview for any offensive in Mosul, where its forces would face ISIS militants who are similarly entrenched.
The commander’s frontline outside the city of al-Garma, on the eastern edge of Anbar, was a dirt barricade in a small village. He said ISIS militants were dug in some 500 yards ahead, taking cover in a line of trees, and that they rained mortar fire on the area daily. Fighters in mismatched fatigues — all from the commander's militia, al-Tayar al-Resaly, one of dozens fighting ISIS alongside the government — walked around the wreckage of a car bomb, while amateur technicians worked to clear the improvised explosive devices (IEDs) that lined a nearby bridge. The commander pointed out spots where ISIS militants had prepared for a grueling fight: hunkering down in a trench around a factory, popping out of a hole they dug beneath the road. "With God's will we keep pushing forward," one fighter said, but the difficulty they had faced so far suggested it would be slow going at best.
During the U.S. occupation, Anbar was the heart of the insurgency led by ISIS’s predecessor, al-Qaeda in Iraq. The province is important now because it allows the militants to control passage between their strongholds in Iraq and neighboring Syria and to menace the road from Baghdad to Mosul. Anbar also underlines how much of the country has slipped from the government’s control —the province accounts for almost one-third of the territory of Iraq — and the extreme difficulty of clawing it back. Both Anbar and Mosul will be far more trying for the Iraqi military and militia to retake than smaller places like Tikrit where they’ve had success so far, said Firas Abi Ali, the head of Middle East and North Africa forecasting at IHS Country Risk in London. “They’ve had more time to prepare and they’ve committed more resources to defense,” he said.
Al-Garma sits near the edge of Baghdad, highlighting how far the ISIS militants pushed in their lightning summer advance. From positions at the edge of Anbar they were able to launch mortars into parts of the city and menace the airport. In early March, the Iraqi military and the militia launched a new offensive to drive ISIS back from the area. They gained ground but at heavy cost — even where ISIS retreated, they slowed the pace of their adversaries with snipers and IEDs, bogging them down and dealing out casualties.
Gen. Qasim Attiya of the Baghdad Operations Command — which is overseeing the fighting there — said ISIS was a far more difficult enemy than the insurgents who dominated Anbar in the past. “They are more advanced. They are smarter now,” he said. “They know how to make the biggest amount of casualties."
Attiya said the military and Shiite militia were cooperating in the offensive. But as has been the case elsewhere in the country, it was the increasingly powerful militia who seemed to be doing the heavy lifting. In another newly won village around al-Garma, two fighters from a militia called Asai’b uhl al-Haq rolled down the road in a U.S. Humvee — captured from the Iraqi military by ISIS, then from ISIS by the militia fighters, who were keeping it for themselves. Bloodstains marked the seats inside. “We didn’t just take the hummer from them,” said one of the fighters. “We also took their lives.”
One difficulty with the militia’s involvement is especially pronounced in Sunni-dominated Anbar, as it would be in Mosul — that they could antagonize the population living under ISIS control. The Iraqi government has already faced accusations from Human Rights Watch and others that it is dropping barrel bombs on civilian areas in Anbar, driving a further wedge between the government and the people. Now residents fear that the militia will carry out sectarian attacks. Commanders and fighters alike were aware of these concerns and careful to address them in interviews. “ISIS repressed the Sunnis too, and now they are crying out for help, and we are sacrificing our blood for them,” said a commander with the Badr Brigades at a base outside al-Garma.
But he added: “The reason that many people stayed in the ISIS areas and didn’t leave is because they already had blood on their hands.”
Reached by phone inside Anbar, senior members of the local Sunni community offered competing versions of the situation.
“It’s quite miserable,” said Faisal al-Ku’ud, a parliamentarian from the region who travels regularly between Anbar and Baghdad. “In the areas under ISIS control, you can consider us hostages.”
He said some Sunnis had taken up arms against ISIS but lacked backing from Baghdad. “I’m personally against any militias going inside the cities. We don’t need them. All we need is government support,” he said.
He criticized the U.S. government for allowing Iraq to draw closer into the orbit of Iran — which exerts heavy influence on the government and lends considerable backing to the militia. “The Americans have left Iraq completely under the control of Iran,” he said. In contrast, a Sunni leader in Fallujah, Mohamed al-Bajjari, claimed that “life is normal” in the city.
“Everyone is happy with the situation right now under ISIS. There’s no problem,” he said. “In fact they are protecting Sunnis from the government.”
He added: “The government is completely sectarian, and I personally feel that the militia, their main mission is to attack Sunnis, to kill us. Without ISIS all of us would be killed — they are the ones that are stopping the militia.”
Several militia fighters and commanders said that Anbar was where the ISIS problem had begun.
They were referring in part to antigovernment protests that erupted in the province in late 2012 in response to the increasingly hardline and sectarian policies of the government in Baghdad. After government forces cracked down on demonstrators camped out in Fallujah and elsewhere, the resulting chaos saw extremists take charge.
Now ISIS holds much of Anbar through a “rule of terror,” said Jordan Perry, an analyst at the Verisk Maplecroft research firm in London. “Many Sunni Arabs are still very suspicious of the government’s motives and Iranian influence, and that combined with ISIS’s authority over them and the potential repercussions will make the extent to which the population will be willing to throw in their lot with Baghdad very limited.”
He added: “When the militia are moving into these territories they will face a very hostile environment indeed.”