Iraqi army fighting to keep Islamic State out of rocket range of capital

An Iraqi soldier surveys the front about 10 miles from the Islamic State stronghold of Fallujah, March 12 2015. He and fellow soldiers have been inching westward to stop rocket attacks against Baghdad.


By JAD SLEIMAN | STARS AND STRIPES Published: March 13, 2015

KARMAH, Iraq — A young Iraqi soldier had barely finished explaining that this now “secure” area had recently been a no-man’s land because of sniper fire when four shots cracked overhead, sending him and others into the dirt.

For the past week his battalion, part of the Iraqi army’s 6th Division, has been fighting near the western edge of Baghdad to push Islamic State militants beyond the range where they could fire Grad rockets into two Shiite neighborhoods of the capital.

So far, they have succeeded in this modest-sized city less than 10 miles from the Islamic State stronghold of Fallujah in Anbar province, much of which is under extremist control.

“We took this area five days ago, and are preparing to push further with Sunni tribes,” said Abdel Amir Shamri, commander of the Baghdad Operations Center, which coordinates military operations to protect the capital.

“There used to be one or two rocket attacks every week, four or five rockets at a time,” he said of attacks on the Baghdad suburbs. “But since we came, they have stopped.”

The success in stopping attacks on the capital from Karmah comes as Iraqi government forces and Shiite militias have been making major gains against the Islamic State in the northern city of Tikrit — Saddam Hussein’s hometown and the gateway to the big prize, Mosul, which fell to the extremists when the Iraqi army collapsed last summer.

But Anbar province — which comprises nearly a third of Iraq’s land mass and extends from the western edge of Baghdad to the borders of Syria, Jordan and Saudi Arabia — could present an even bigger challenge than the north. Much of the province has fallen to the Islamic State, including Fallujah, which the insurgents have held since January 2014.

More than 90 percent of Anbar’s estimated 2 million people are marginalized Sunnis, many of whom oppose the Shiite-dominated Iraqi government. Anbar accounted for more than 40 percent of all American combat deaths in Iraq between 2004 and 2006, when many Sunni tribesmen turned against the Islamic State’s forebear, al-Qaida in Iraq.

Shamri doesn’t know when government forces will push ahead to Fallujah, though officials have said a push into Anbar is likely after the Islamic State is forced out of Tikrit. For now, Iraqi forces here on the eastern edge of Anbar appear to be concentrating on keeping extremists from threatening Baghdad with rocket fire.

Although the danger to Baghdad has been reduced, government forces trying to hold Islamic State militants at bay in Karmah still face threats from militant fire and from improvised explosive devices, which Islamic State fighters left behind when they pulled back.

During a recent Stars and Stripes visit, a felled palm tree next to a makeshift barracks still smoldered from an early morning mortar attack. Unexploded, exposed IEDs were scattered around the area, some just a few feet from where Iraqi soldiers were camped. Iraqi soldiers casually picked up and showed off live mortars that were used in IEDS, holding them in their hands like darts.

“The Iraqi army is dealing with the IEDs, but there are just too many and too few engineers,” said Maj. Muhammad Ali.

A soldier holding a mortar round in each hand said that he hasn’t been trained in explosive-ordnance disposal, but he’s gotten “plenty of practice.”

“Basically, when the guys see them from afar they just try and shoot them,” Ali said.

The result is a curious pattern of nearly constant gunfire heard across the front — two or three well placed shots at a time — with successful strikes on the ordnance triggering a deep boom as plumes of smoke rise in the distance.

As the daylight waned, Ali warned that staying any longer would mean having to stay the night hunkered down within the soldiers’ defensive positions. “Secure” is a relative term here.

Yet, just a short distance away, a wedding caravan decked in flowery ornaments, horns honking and music blaring, passed along the road, presenting a sharp contrast to the tense front where the soldiers keep watch.

For them, keeping the Islamic militants out of rocket-fire range of Baghdad is worth the risk.

“Thank God we’ve finally pushed Daesh out of here,” said Sgt. Areif Raed Hamood, using the Arabic acronym for the Islamic State group. “My family, my friends used to get hit by these rockets, and being out here, I know my family is safer, finally safer.”

Twitter: @JadASleiman

Iraqi army soldiers duck as an Islamic State sniper's first volley cracks overhead in Karmah, Iraq, March 12, 2015. His battalion, part of the Iraqi 6th Division, is fighting to keep the militants out of rocket range of Baghdad.