The Iraqi army made a statement through state TV announcing that the operation to take Anbar province from ISIL fighters had began at 5am local time.
It was a confident announcement by the media spokesman, the likes of which we have seen several times before. The Iraqis were careful to say that it wasn’t just the mainly Shia militias taking part but that the battle would also involve several Sunni tribal groups, which in predominantly Sunni Anbar is a key factor in how successful the Iraqis might be in defeating ISIL.
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Also announced on Monday was the delivery of the first four F-16 fighter jets out of a total of 36 that the US has sold to Iraq.
This has been a long controversial deal. So much so that last year the Iraqis, frustrated at the delays in delivering the aircraft, bought Sukhoi jets from Russia to use in the interim.
The US has insisted it needed to properly train and equip the pilots and fighter jets, and needed the time.
Most recently, the security at Balad airbase in Salahudeen province was called into question causing further delays.
Finally though, four of them are ready to fly under an Iraqi flag, in Iraqi skies.
But will they make a difference? Experts suggest that it won’t be the radical game changer that many might want.
The coalition air strikes led by the US, using far more sophisticated aircraft, haven’t dented ISIL’s ability to keep territory and keep up the fight against Iraqi security forces. The airstrikes have so far been most useful in cutting off ISIL supply lines. They have been less useful in urban areas because of the fear of civilian casualties, which ISIL has exploited to their advantage, particularly in Mosul, a city they’ve held for over a year.
In Anbar province the terrain is mainly desert and so the roads are important. That’s likely to be where the Iraqi F-16s will make a difference, especially if good intelligence on ISIL’s movements between Syria and Iraq is available.
But the battle for Anbar province won’t be easy. Speaking before the operation was announced. Hadi al-Ameri, the head of the mainly-Shia Popular Mobilisation Forces, said that the operation for the liberation of Anbar province won’t begin until after Eid in a week.
While some consider this a flexing of muscle from Ameri, others say it’s a much more realistic timeline. What the Iraqi forces are doing, and we have seen this in other areas before, is capturing key towns and villages in Anbar, which they’ll use as staging post for operations to liberate the towns of Fallujah and Ramadi.
They’ll need to be determined and focused in order to do that. Some Sunni tribes in those cities have pledged allegiance to ISIL. Some observers are hoping that they’ve only pledged allegiance because they’ve been under threat from ISIL, and once the operation begins they’ll switch sides. It’s a big gamble but one some Iraqis clearly think is worth taking.
A win in Anbar will deal a blow to ISIL but it won’t destroy them completely. They’ll still control land in Iraq and Syria.
Dealing with them across both borders when all the different players here have differing agendas has always been a problem. Iran wants to defeat ISIL in Iraq and defend President Bashar al-Assad in Syria. The Americans and the West want Assad out so they won’t do anything that might help him defeat ISIL, one of his many enemies in Syria. The Iraqi Shia led government sits on the fence when it comes to the Syrian president, albeit with its feet dangling on the Iranian side. ISIL have long taken advantage of those competing agendas with great skill.
For ISIL this is just another announcement of yet another Anbar operation and one they are confident they’ll survive in some shape or other. For the Iraqis it’s a key announcement that’ll hopefully come with a key victory announcement in the weeks to come.