WASHINGTON — Iraqi security forces routed Islamic State fighters at a key hamlet in the first major fighting since pushing them from the strategic city of Ramadi, a senior Defense official said Tuesday.
The battles took place near Barwana, a hamlet across the Euphrates River from Haditha in western Anbar province. Fighters from the Islamic State, also known as ISIL or ISIS, began attacking the town with car bombs and mortars on Jan. 3. They have used the open desert region as a staging area for attacks on Haditha, site of a major hydroelectric dam.
The official spoke on condition of anonymity because officials were not authorized to speak publicly about the battle.
The victory could be seen as "proof of concept" for the U.S. strategy to back local ground forces with airstrikes and advisers, said Nicholas Heras, a researcher with the Middle East Security Program at the Center for a New American Security. In Iraq, forces such as the Counter Terrorism Service are viewed as less sectarian than some elements of the Shiite-led government. The idea is for them to dislodge ISIL fighters, and turn the areas over to local Sunni forces to hold and govern.
"We should expect more of this model, with a community-by-community approach, because that is how the war in Sunni areas against ISIS will be won," Heras said. "Rather than one big offensive push against ISIS in Mosul to seize the capital of ISIS' caliphate, it will be a series of smaller territory-winning, and then territory-holding with local forces, offensives that erode ISIS' communal base of power."
In Barwana, a force of several hundred Iraqi security forces, led by a small battalion of its elite Counter Terrorism Service, rallied soldiers from Iraqi Army's 7th division and Sunni tribal fighters to defend the town, said the official who was not authorized to speak publicly about the battles.
The Iraqi security forces first set up defenses for Barwana, bolstering local forces, the official said. Within days, they began mounting a counter-assault. They chased a force of hundreds of ISIL fighters more than six miles up Highway 19. It's an area of western and northern Iraq that ISIL seized in a blitz in the summer of 2014. That included Mosul, Iraq's second-largest city.
ISIL fighters retreated in a rout after 150 had been killed, the official said. The remaining 60 or so fighters were killed in U.S. airstrikes. Those strikes were noted in a Central Command rundown of bombing runs conducted against ISIL on Jan. 10. The release notes that two strikes of the 11 attacks in Iraq that day occurred near Haditha and destroyed "tactical units" and a fighting position.
Iraqi forces appear to have suffered two killed and a few others wounded in the fighting, the official said.
Late last month, Iraqi forces, backed by more than 600 airstrikes in the U.S.-led air war, retook Ramadi, Anbar's capital. The city had been surrendered to ISIL forces in May without a fight.