Capture of bridge linking Haditha to besieged city of Baghdadi leaves up to 20 Iraqi soldiers dead, reports say.
Away from the headlines and from the prying eyes of the media lies a very different war than the one that gets reported.
We hear so often that the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant group, ISIL, have captured this village; that Iraqi security forces have routed ISIL from that town. But the real war for Anbar province isn’t for its towns and villages. It’s for the roads.
Anbar is a desert province. He, who controls the roads, controls the province and there aren’t that many roads.
One main road leads from Ramadi to Jordan in the west and connects the towns of Fallujah and onto Baghdad in the east. Another road connects Ramadi to Syria and then Ramadi to Fallujah and onto Baghdad.
Ahmed Rushdi, a military and political analyst, says ISIL have taken full advantage.
“Anbar throughout history has been known as the road of caravans, strategically it’s very important as the roads are the only way to get around. The main business in Anbar is transportation and construction materials. ISIL have taken advantage of that by taking over transportation companies which give them revenue and the ability to smuggle arms and fighters from Syria into Iraq,” Rushdi said.
Because of that ability to move around Anbar province rumours of a deal struck between border guards on both the Syrian and Jordanian crossings have been rife. What is clear is that ISIL have the ability to move almost unhindered in Anbar Province, despite the fact that Iraqi Security Forces have pushed out ISIL fighter from some of the villages and towns in the province.
But why are ISIL able to move around so freely in Anbar? One reason lies in Iraq’s sectarian divide. Iraq’s security forces are mainly Shia, and many of the frontline forces fighting ISIL are Shia militia groups who have had success against ISIL.
Anbar is a Sunni province and the Sunni tribes who are pro-government are crying out for weapons and support to fight ISIL.
They claim they’ve defeated ISIL before in 2008, when the group was known as al-Qaeda In Iraq.
‘Aren’t united enough’
Others say Sunnis are not united enough and therefore weak.
A diplomatic source quoted a senior Shia militia commander as saying: “We should be concentrating on defeating ISIL. If the Sunnis want to do that, then let us do it, after that we can discuss what happens next. The priority is defeating ISIL – not who defeats ISIL.”
But without Sunni co-operation, defeating ISIL in Anbar will be difficult. Rushdi says that ISIL have taken advantage of a power vacuum.
“Since 1917 when the British used the Anbar tribes to topple the Ottoman Empire, the tribes have been important. What ISIL have been very successful at is convincing some of those tribes that Iraq has forgotten them, that the federal government has actively kept them underfoot,” he said.
“ISIL and the tribes are conservative by nature, share common traits, so some tribes have joined ISIL as a way to fight back against perceived injustices by the Iraqi government.”
In many ways, Anbar province is the key to defeating ISIL. Victory there rather than in Mosul or any of the other places will significantly weaken the group.
The government in Baghdad is involved in serious talks with Anbar’s tribes but little practical progress has been made.
The hidden war in Anbar is then twofold, one for the roads of the province and one for the hearts and minds of those tribes that have joined ISIL.
Both huge tasks need to be addressed, if Iraq is to defeat the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant group.
Follow Imran Khan on Twitter: @AJImran