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ISIS, Baghdad fight over strategic town southwest of capital - ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive
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Members of the Iraqi security forces take up positions along a road during a patrol in the town of Jurf Al-Sakhar, south of Baghdad, on July 16, 2014. (Reuters/Stringer)

Members of the Iraqi security forces take up positions along a road during a patrol in the town of Jurf Al-Sakhar, south of Baghdad, on July 16, 2014. (Reuters/Stringer)

Baghdad, Asharq Al-Awsat—Iraqi tribal leaders have called on authorities to pay more attention to winning the “hearts and minds” of citizens in order to combat the advance of Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) fighters towards the capital Baghdad.

The calls came after Iraqi troops launched an attack on ISIS in the strategically situated town of Jurf Al-Sakhar on Monday, seeking to dislodge ISIS militants that are advancing into central Babil governorate. Local and international media reported that Iraqi troops entered the mainly Sunni town, backed by Sukhoi fighter jets, with at least 17 reported killed in the ensuing battle.

Jurf Al-Sakhar is located along a major road linking Baghdad to Iraq’s southern Shi’ite heartland. ISIS control of the city, and this major road, would represent a major setback for the central government in its attempts to stem the movement’s advance.

Sheikh Amer Ibrahim, a Babil tribal leader and former army officer, told Asharq Al-Awsat: “For months Jurf Al-Sakhar has been infiltrated by armed militants, including members of ISIS. Northern Babil is undoubtedly a safe haven for armed organizations, and this is the reason for the lack of security in the region.”

He added: “It is clear that these organizations have an eye on Jurf Al-Sakhar due to its strategic position. We are close to [the city of] Amiriyah Fallujah as well as southern Baghdad and [the city of] Suleiman Beg, where there are other extremist havens.”

The tribal sheikh accused Iraqi authorities of not doing enough in the region to deter the advance of extremist militants. “They have been remiss in their dealings with this problem, particularly the intelligence services. They have responded to what is happening in the traditional manner, including making mass arrests, which only serves to exacerbate the situation.”

Sheikh Ibrahim called on the central government to take a different approach and try to win the hearts and minds of Iraq’s Sunni majority, particularly Sunni-majority towns in central Iraq, in order to staunch ISIS’s advance.

“Even if the military manages to regain control of the area, then the government must deal with the residents there in a different way in order to win them over. However, if this area remains under the control of the armed militias, then all options are open,” he warned.