'Revenge of the Martyrs': Inside Iraq's largest anti-ISIS operations since Mosul
• By Kareem Botane • August 5, 2018
Iraq is engaged in a tough fight to rid itself of remnants of ISIS a year after the battle for Mosul. Amid fears of a new insurgency, the government launched its largest multi-phase campaign in a year dubbed the 'Martyr’s Revenge Operation.' In an exclusive interview ERD commander and division Chief of Staff Gen. Abbas al-Jubouri discussed how ISIS is being confronted and the complexities of a joint operation between Baghdad and the Kurdistan region.
ERD soldiers take part in an operation searching for ISIS remnants (Courtesy Kareem Botane)
The interview was conducted by Kareem Botane in Arabic with General Abbas Mahamad Hussein Al-Jubouri. The Emergency Response Division is under the control of the Interior Ministry. It played a key role in the battle for Mosul in 2017.
Can you describe the reason for the latest operation against ISIS? The name of the operation?
The operations that started, it was about one month ago in June 2018 and it is called Martyr’s Revenge Operation. The martyrs refer to a group ISIS outlaws kidnapped and killed in many different areas. The First and Second Martyrs Revenge Operations achieved success led by ERD, which widely participated in these operations. Orders of command commissions for officers were issued according to the directives of the Prime minister and the General Commander of the Armed Forces to initiate this operation.
The operation was implemented by the joint commander of operations of Diyala Governorate, the SalahAl-Din Command of the ERD Division, and the Commander of Federal Police Forces.
Can you describe the goals and areas of the operation (Saladin, Kirkuk, Diyala?)
Operations were targeted against terrorist groups, which had abducted and were killing innocent people on the roads in Diyala, Kirkuk Governorates specifically. Truly, the operation succeeded in securing the road between Baghdad and Kirkuk. It pushed terrorist groups to the areas like Mutyaibija (مطيبيجة) and Bahr Al-Melih, which is far away from Salah Al-din joint commander operational areas. Therefore, Salah Al-din joint command of the operation with a joint command of Iraqi army division forces, began operations on these areas to control them well.
Why has ISIS activity been able to continue over the last few months, has it grown?
ISIS has not been very active since the last operation led by the joint command after ISIS divisions and units were eliminated and destroyed in Mosul. However there are sleeper cells which a group of terrorists can be found in. These could be counted on your hand in many different areas they are so few. They kidnap and kill here and there and these attacks have received a lot of media attention. They are trying to sway public opinion toward them. They are trying to prove they exist. The truth is that ISIS was like a page in a book that has been turned, it is finished and gone.
Are the tactics ISIS is using similar to last year in Mosul, or are there new and different tactics?
As I noted above, ISIS is a small group of terrorists that can be counted on your fingers of your hand, they do not have any tactics in this sense. In the liberation operation of Mosul, in the villages around Mosul and in Fallujah, Salah Al-Din, and the rest of the Iraqi cities that were under ISIS control there were direct confrontations such as suicide car bombs, fighting lines, snipers and thousands of terrorists.
Currently, there are a small group of terrorists. They cannot go more than seven or fourteen individuals at a time in their best circumstances. They do their activities here and there. But we managed this issue, we secured the road from Baghdad to Kirkuk. There are no tactics that ISIS is using, no convention face-to-face fighting with security forces. We did not find that during the operations.
Can you give us an overall number for ISIS members eliminated, VBIEDs, tunnels, etc destroyed?
As a part under our unit, I am telling you there are no direct fights with terrorists. We found some IEDs and bombs, we managed to destroy some of them and managed to blow up some of it without any losses. Also, we found some of military uniforms, food, and we found places they used as medical facilities. We destroyed and burned these sites. But we could not find concentrations of ISIS fighters in these areas. We could not find any. We found different kind of food stockpiles, which proves they are present, but we could not find any ISIS fighters who would stand up to a direct fight in the area under ERD responsibilities.
What units are participating besides the ERD? CTS (ISOF)? PMU? Iraqi army, air forces? Overall numbers of those involved?
As ERD commanders of operations we participated only as the ERD division under our own command with coordination with PMU brigade 52 of Hash Al-Shabi in Tuz Khormato. In another words, the Martyrs Revenge Operation started along the main road, specifically the Tuz road all the way to the east toward a series mountains until the border with security forces from the Kurdistan Region (KRI). After discussions, and exchanging information among our commanders at division level and with the Iraq Security Forces that are on the ground in the areas we split our forces with Kurdistan region. Salah Al-din’s commander of the operation also participated in Diyala’s operational and the Federal Police forces. We are participating as Commando Divisions;. Other forces also participated based on whatever they have.
Can you describe the role of the PMU in the operation? What about local tribes (Shammar etc)?
First, we are in Tuz district. The district contains there ethnicities: Turkman, Kurds, and Arabs. There is coordination and exchange of information between us and the tribal leaders in these areas. Meetings continue with the Chief of Staff of the ERD, Chiefs of staff of the ERD divisions, continuously communications are ongoing with our brothers in the Hash al-Shabi by exchanging information and Intelligence information. Therefore, the role of our brothers in the Hash Al-Shabi with our divisions was excellent, and I think they were very effective on making significant success in this operation with other divisions on the ground.
Do you think this operation will deal a major blow to ISIS and we will see reduction in ISIS activity?
After the first and the second of Martyrs Revenge Operations, we reduced ISIS attacks, such as killings and kidnaping with significant differences between these operations in the number of attacks before and after. In addition, we rearranged the distribution our divisions and units much better after we found many gaps and lack of coordination with our Commando Operations in Diyala and Salah Al-din; and with the Federal Police, and with our brothers, the Peshmerga. As a result, we reduced of learning these lessons we reduced the threat of mobile groups of terrorists in this area. We denied them another opportunity to make any terrorist activities. Therefore, currently we do not have any threat on the road from Baghdad to Kirkuk as a part of ERD division’s area of responsibility.
Is this the largest operation since December 2017 against ISIS?
We never had a big operation like this, before all operations were under the control of Kirkuk’s commander of operations, which consisted of daily activities; as well as Salah Al-din commander’s operations.
However, with the first and the second of Martyrs Revenges Operations there was coordination and direct supervision by joint commanders of the operation. It was ordered to target a group of terrorists present in these area and adjoining areas. Therefore, it is considered to be the biggest operation of its size and the special operations achieved direct coordination and successes.
Is the Coalition (US, etc) aiding the operation?
There is coordination between us and Coalition forces in terms of close air support specifically from the Italian Air Force. They supported us looking for wanted people, researching, and scanning using armed drones. Furthermore, the Iraqi Air Force destroyed many ISIS-occupied houses using drones and aerial units. They played a significant role as air support.
Can you give us any specific examples of raids/events during the operation that you are proud of and can describe in detail?
In our area of responsibility there are no terrorists present. Therefore, our duties are research and eliminating threats based on intelligence and information gathering. During the Operations the enemy did not conduct any ambushes against us which means there is no physical presence or conventional fights. Our past operations covered Ramadi, Fallujah, Salah Al-Din, Samara, Dour (دور), and the area between Mosul and Tal Afar where unique threats were confronted.
Recent operations are specialized and concentrate on taking out a group of terrorists in these areas and re-organizing the forces in order to secure the roads. There are no capable groups of terrorist to be considered a unique or important event. There were no causalities nor losses between them and us. We did find anything like that. We only found some simple material or remains of ISIS like old flags, rice, flour, military uniforms, some pictures, but there is no presence of ISIS.
Is ISIS today located more in villages or in the countryside (desert, fields, Hamrin mountains etc)?
I can give a precise location. ISIS is located between Hawth Othiem(حوض عظيم) all the way to Mutaybija (مطيبيجة),and Al-Bohir Al-Milh (البحر الملح). These areas were recently controlled by the Iraqi army. Mutaybija and Al-Bohir al-Milh, these areas are completely cleaned from IS.
They moved to these areas. We do not have any information nor intelligence information on their present specific location. Most of the time, they approach safe roads with a limited number of individuals for example one or two men. In small numbers they do not appear suspicioned or bring the attention of security forces to them in such wildly open areas.
Samara and Hamrin Mountain area contains groups of terrorist. As I mentioned earlier. For example the series mountains of Tuz (طوز) is there present locations and the ‘badlands’ (waney, hinterlands) area near there. It is very hard to get there. Therefore, they utilize it by walking from one place to another differently. There presence is almost none. This is what we noted during our present operations here through using camera on drones.
Besides the responsibilities in our district, according to our intelligence information and coordination with Salah Al-Din and Diyala commands, ISIS are taking to these hinterlands. We secured the road to Mutaybija and the area around it in coordination with the forces in Samara.
However there are abandoned villages far from the security forces in rural areas and as a result ISIS moved to them to shelter and stay in. It is not possible for them to come to the center of the district with weapons. We have enough forces to capture and secure all Iraqi lands, but this includes wild, open areas of desert, villages and countryside that is more challenging. It’s not possible for even developed countries to control these kinds of areas, we are depending on ambushes, convoys on patrol and advanced special operations.
Will the Peshmerga play any role?
The Peshmerga role is to secure and control the border between the central government and Kurdistan region. They are staying as they were before in the past. There is coordination and exchanging of information and communications are ongoing with our Peshmerga brothers. However, they did not participate in any of operations in central government provinces so far.
This interview was conducted in late July. General Abbas al-Jubouri's name is also spelled Jabouri, Juburi, Jbouri. The text was edited for clarity by Seth J. Frantzman.
General Abbas Al-Jabouri (Courtesy)