Iraqi Forces Clear Baiji but Millions still Displaced

The battle that Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said was “crucial†to turning the tide against the militant organization, the Islamic State in Syria and the Levant (ISIL, also ISIS or Daesh), has been won, at least for the time being, by the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF).

Over the weekend, the ISF backed by thousands of Shia-militiamen comprising the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF, or al-Hashd al-Shaabi in Arabic) were able to clear the Iraqi town of Baiji which is home to Iraq’s largest oil refinery.

As of Monday, the area in and around Baiji, which sits approximately 200 km north of Baghdad, had been mostly cleared of ISIL fighters.

Even though ISIL still retains significant swaths of Iraqi territory including the major cities of Ramadi and Mosul, the operation to clear Baiji was being hailed as a success by the ISF and Iranian-backed PMF militias. The ISIL forces that managed to escape Baiji have reportedly fled north to Mosul.

In speaking to Reuters, the mayor of Baiji Mohammed Mahmoud said, “I can confirm to you that our forces won the battle of the refinery and for Baiji town. We managed to control almost all parts of the town and now we are surrounding some Daesh [ISIL] snipers entrenched in some buildings.â€

Clearing Baiji, while itself not a large population center, is strategically important because it sits on the main throughway between Mosul and Baghdad. Earlier this year, the ISF reclaimed Tikrit, 70 km south of Baiji, from ISIL forces.

ISIL militants mounted a conventional defense of the refinery and neighboring areas. In preparation for an offensive by the ISF, improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and land mines were placed in the ground around the city. Snipers were positioned throughout the area as well.

Over 10,000 Shia militiamen from the PMF have been involved in the week-long operation that also includes soldiers from the ISF and local police forces. Members of the militias, Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq and the Badr Organization, have led the brunt of the offensive to oust militants from the area.

The refinery itself is reported to have sustained extensive damage which will take years to fully repair.

The ISF and PMF are expected to continue their offensive north in an effort to cut off supply lines and access to Mosul. The recapture of Baiji and a push through the Salahudin governorate are vital for a future offensive to remove ISIL’s strangle hold on Iraq’s second largest city.

Internally Displaced Persons

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Iraqi Internally Displaced Persons (UN)

In the aftermath of the military operations in Baiji, the United Nations Assistance Mission in Iraq (UNAMI) recently released discouraging statistics about Iraqi civilians caught in fighting throughout the country.

UNAMI announced that it had identified over 3.2 million internally displaced persons in Iraq between January 2014 and September 2015.

The most recent figures released by the the International Organization for Migration (IOM) in Iraq illustrate the harsh realities of life in the war torn country.

An overwhelming majority of IDPs come from just three of Iraq’s 18 governorates. 87% of IDPS in Iraq are from Anbar (42%), Ninewa (32%), and Salah al-Din (13%). According to the IOM’s Displacement Tracking Matrix, 94 percent of IDPS reported that generalized violence was the main reason for their decision to leave their homes.

The three governorates from which most of the IDPs originate are the governorates with the largest presence of ISIL forces. Now, as Iraqi government forces and militias conduct increased operations to push back the militants, more than likely there will be increased IDPs as a result.

In a testament to the resolve and determination of the Iraqi people, 89 percent of IDPs surveyed “expressed an intention to return to their place of origin.â€

 

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