The Iraqis have done it at last. It took some touches at the level of organization and tactic with the guidance of General Qassem Soleimani to say that the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is not invincible, that it is a bogeyman that was inflated deliberately, and that its victory is not inevitable. To understand this, skeptics only have to ask about the ‘epic’ battle in Jaref al-Sakher [Rocky Cliff], which Iraqis now like to call Jaref al-Nasr [Victory Cliff].
ISIS is not a supernatural entity. It is an organization with formidable combat capabilities, yes, and it has thousands of fighters willing to die. But it is not invincible. The bogeyman that it has become, deliberately made into an icon of terror that cannot be broken, has indeed been shattered. ISIS has been exposed as a paper tiger, provided that it is taken on seriously.
This was proven around 3 weeks ago in Iraq, in the region of Jaref al-Sakher. Of course, the US and Western media will not bother to highlight what happened there, nor will the oil-funded Arab media. However, according to information obtained by Al-Akhbar from sources on the ground there, it is possible to say without hesitation that the ‘epic’ battle that took place there is equivalent in importance to what happened in the Qusair region of Syria, more than a year ago, if not more important.
What happened in Jaref al-Sakher was a historical achievement for the men of the Popular Mobilization group that consists of multiple military factions, which had previously fought the US occupation. They include: Hezbollah Brigades, League of the Righteous, the Badr Organization, and Saraya al-Salam (of the Sadrist movement), in addition to other factions. General Qassem Soleimani, commander of the Quds Force of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, was the undisputed “hero” of the battle. There have been pictures spreading of the shadowy man, who has been coming out into the light in recent months, and is said to be from Jaref al-Sakher. The man’s role in helping Iraqi forces logistically and even in combat is no longer a secret.
This force – as has indeed happened – can crush the ISIS hordes, even forcing the ISIS leadership there to retreat in humiliation. This is in line with what Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran Ayatollah Ali Khamenei had told Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi last month: “We believe that Iraq, its government and people, especially the youth of this country, have the ability to defeat the terrorists and restore security. There is no need for foreign presence in the country.”
What does Jaref al-Sakher represent and what happened there exactly?
That region, in the province of Babel, is dominated by geographical features that include palm forests and artificial lakes. For ISIS it was a staging ground for an offensive into the Shia south. Jaref al-Sakher is located halfway between Baghdad and Karbala, slightly closer to the second. It is also a southern extension of the Fallujah province, which is one of the strongholds of al-Qaeda and now ISIS in Iraq. This is how that region came to be called the triangle of death after 2003, as it was the source of most car bombs into Baghdad.
In 2010, it became known as the capital of ISIS’ ‘southern state.’ From there, suicide bombers set off to attack civilian communities in Musayyib, Alexandria, Hilla, Karbala, and Baghdad. After the fall of Mosul, ISIS considered Jaref al-Sakher “a dagger in the side of the Shia,” from which they would be defeated in Baghdad, Babel, Karbala, and Najaf, all the way to Basra.
For this reason, ISIS strengthened its military presence in the villages and rural areas of Jaref al-Sakher, and in March, even began moving on the center of Musayyib district center and reached an area several hundred meters from the city’s famed roundabout, which is considered the gateway to Karbala in the south. At the time, organized Shia militias repelled ISIS and limited its advance.
Attacks on the pilgrims to the holy Shia city along the road are innumerable. Hundreds of innocents were killed by bombs, machine guns, beheadings, and crucifixions. Many massacres were engraved into the memory of the Iraqis from that region, and yet, received little coverage in the media. On one occasion, throngs of ISIS fighters crossed the road in question and the Musayyib Bridge, forcing the convoys of pilgrims and other travelers to divert their course to Jaref al-Sakher. There, according to reliable sources, indescribable crimes took place against the elderly, children, women, and men. Some women were raped, others were taken as slaves, and many of them were killed a while after.
Historically, under Saddam Hussein, Jaref al-Sakher was known as a safe haven for criminal gangs, including narcotics dealers and killers. Even Saddam avoided the region, and never raided it. Before Jaref was liberated, according to sources, the US army told the Iraqi side that it would not be able to carry out that offensive. For the Americans, “the Jaref al-Sakher problem was difficult to resolve militarily, given its terrain covered by old palm trees, and the presence of a large ISIS force there.”
In other words, what the Americans could not do, or what the Americans feared to do, was achieved by the forces of the Iraqi Popular Mobilization backed by the Quds Force led by General Soleimani. Soleimani reportedly was involved closely in leading the battle, as happened in other Iraqi regions in the past.
Jaref al-Sakher has an area of approximately 25 kilometers by 4 kilometers. The assault began from three axes, with the area being showered by gunfire to soften the targets for nearly half an hour. The attacking force then advanced from three directions: from the village of Fadiliyah, to isolate the region from Amiriyat al-Fallujah in the north, with the advance from this axis being led by the League of the Righteous. From the south, the Hezbollah Brigades advanced directly from the village of al-Bahbahan. From the center, the remainder of the force advanced to take a number of villages controlled by ISIS including Abed Ways and al-Farisiyah.
The battle began. Close range and even face-to-face combat ensued with ISIS. The fighters of the Popular Mobilization saw firsthand how ISIS fighters could be killed, and how those who survived struggled to flee the area. In the beginning, ISIS terrorists defended their lines using snipers and explosive devices they had planted in large quantities between the palm trees. The line collapsed however, after the concentrated attack by the fighters of the Iraqi factions (who incidentally are not very well trained, but are indeed well organized and followed a tight plan).
Within hours, the attacking force entered the last areas controlled by ISIS, whose fighters were surprised to see they were surrounded and their supply lines cut off. All ISIS’s attempts to hold its ground were futile. In less than 48 hours, the area, which the US and Iraqi armies could not retake throughout the better part of a decade, was liberated.
Sources that closely followed the battle, quoting security officials, say that Baghdadi, after receiving news from the ground about the fate suffered by his forces, gave orders to prevent anyone from his group to be captured. Dozens of bodies were thus burned or dumped in the river, the sources say. Baghdadi’s message reached his fighters as they were fleeing from Jaref al-Sakher, at the same time the factions of the attacking force coming from multiple directions merged in al-Shahban and al-Hujeir. ISIS fighters left behind 4 APCs and 3 Humvees, and had to retreat on foot or in other words: run.
Though the US mobilized an international alliance against ISIS in Iraq and Syria, it could not liberate a single village in Iraq or Syria. Meanwhile, the Iraqi Popular Mobilization units are taking the initiative on the ground in multiple regions of Iraq, as happened in Amirli before Jaref al-Sakher, and is happening today in Sad al-Azim, Jalawla, and al-Saadia.
Sources say that the lessons to be learned from all these battles is that morale among the anti-ISIS factions is very high, after the psychological barrier this radical jihadi group built through massacres against its opponents was broken. Sources say the coming days will reveal more about this.
After the epic battle in Jaref al-Sakher, and Soleimani’s photos from the field smiling, a fighter from the Iraqi factions sent a message to his friend to reassure him about the situation. He wrote, “We have leveled the rocks, Qassem.”
This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.