Baghdad, Asharq Al-Awsat—The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is adopting new tactics in anticipation of impending air strikes by the US-led coalition, an expert on armed groups has told Asharq Al-Awsat, at the same time that authorities in the Sunni-dominated Anbar province announced the group is beginning to flee areas in and around the governorate.
In a statement issued on Sunday, the head of the Anbar Provincial Council, Sabah Karhout, said Anbar’s security forces had received information that members of ISIS were “fleeing the districts and surrounding areas of the province which are under their control and heading to the Western Desert region and to Syria in a state of panic.”
Karhout said this proved ISIS fighters “feared” a confrontation with the Iraqi security forces, adding that the Iraqi army had “accomplished great military achievements in the last few hours.”
“The security forces succeeded in emptying [an area] west of Ramadi [of ISIS forces], encircling the areas of Zankoura and Kirkuk Province, and freeing the Haditha district,” he added.
This comes as a US-led coalition of countries, including Arab members such as Iraq, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, prepares to take action against the group in Iraq, as US air strikes continue against ISIS strongholds in the country.
Hisham Al-Hashimi, an expert on armed groups from the Al-Nahrain Center for Strategic Studies, told Asharq Al-Awsat that ISIS was adopting “new tactics” in anticipation of international military action, including “hiding in ditches and using camouflage to evade fighter jets, since the [impending] international mobilization [against the group] will only rely on air strikes for the time being.”
Currently, only the US and Iraqi air forces are carrying out air strikes against the group, bolstering ground attacks by the Iraqi army and the Peshmerga, the Kurdistan region’s own military force.
Air and artillery strikes by Iraqi forces were halted on Saturday, however, after Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi, who is also the overall commander of the Iraqi military, ordered all strikes on areas controlled by ISIS to stop.
This followed reports last week that a school housing refugees in the Salah Al-Din province had been mistakenly bombed by an Iraqi fighter jet, leading to the deaths of 41 people, among them women and children.
Despite the deaths, the Salah Al-Din Provincial Council has put forward a formal request to Abadi for bombing to continue in the province, maintaining that since fighting between government soldiers and ISIS is still raging there, any cessation in military activity by Iraqi forces could work in the group’s favor.
Speaking of the decision, Ghassan Al-Ithawi, a prominent religious and tribal figure from Anbar, told Asharq Al-Awsat halting the bombing was a “double-edged sword.”
“At the same time that families [in the affected regions] will benefit from the increased safety [the decision provides] . . . it will also give ISIS fighters the opportunity to move among civilians, giving them a safe environment [to remain hidden from authorities],” Ithawi said.
In regards to the moratorium on air strikes, Hashimi told Asharq Al-Awsat that Iraqi forces needed to strike a balance between fighting ISIS and avoiding civilian casualties.
“Stopping the strikes in itself is not enough,” he said. “What is needed is to select targets accurately, since ISIS, while similar to standing armies in some ways, is different from them in others since its fighters do not move in columns or use barracks.”
He said this would prove vital in the fight against the group going forward since it would use civilian casualties to garner support for itself among Iraqis.
“The group has a number of ways to use the media in its favor here, especially in light of the negative consequences of the expected strikes, particularly the prospect of casualties among civilians . . . which may increase the Iraqi public’s opposition in this area [the strikes],” Hashimi said.
To do this, Iraqi forces would need to gather “effective intelligence” about ISIS movements in order to strike the group’s fighters while avoiding killing civilians and thus handing the militants a propaganda victory and recruiting tool, he added.
Meanwhile, eyewitnesses told Reuters on Sunday that ISIS fighters executed eight Sunni men in Al-Gamasa, a small village north of the country, a day earlier, suspecting the men of conspiring against them.
The eyewitnesses said the executions began on Friday, when ISIS killed a local police officer they suspected of cooperating with both the Peshmerga and Iraqi central government forces.
After the execution, a small local armed group carried out a retaliatory attack on a house occupied by an ISIS soldier.
Then on Saturday morning, 10 vehicles carrying ISIS fighters rolled into the village, also carrying two “informers,” according to the eyewitnesses, who were later used to identify 10 people suspected of carrying out the attack on the ISIS soldier the previous night. Three were subsequently freed and the remaining seven executed, the eyewitnesses said.