Over the last few days, the southern region of Salah ad-Din province has been inundated with some of the heaviest fighting the area has ever seen. This region was as far as ISIS could reach during its June offensive, when it captured large swathes of northern and central Iraq.
On Sunday (28th December), the Ministry of Defense announced that operations in southern Salah ad-Din province had resulted in the liberation of Yathrib, Qadissiya, Albu Jeela, Matharie, the Khashabi (Wooden) Bridge and Dhulu’iya airport and in the process killed 180 ISIS militants and destroyed 6 weapons caches and 8 armed vehicles.
On Saturday (27th December), the news that Yathrib had been fully liberated was declared. This was inevitable as hundreds of Iraqi Army troops, Federal Police units and Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq (AAH) paramilitaries had been gradually converging upon this predominantly Sunni town for weeks.
The operation had been delayed multiple times due to the fact that civilians remained in the town, but once they had been evacuated, the operation was given a green light. A continuous stream of battle footage was released with clips of Iranian-supplied Safir jeeps and Soviet-era T-55 tanks supporting the advancing troops.
There were also sightings of BTR-94 and M1117 armoured vehicles used by the Federal Police. Iraqi security forces (ISF) and Shia paramilitaries (mainly AAH) successfully assaulted the villages of Albu Hishma, Aziz Balad, Albu Hanzal, al-Remelat, Albu Ayfan, Albu Hamad and Tal al-Thahab. It was also reported that ISF and Shia volunteers in the Popular Committees captured the Arab Sayir, Arab Duhok, al-Bawabaat al-Ashra, Ruwashid and al-Mukbara villages in Balad district.
The village of Albu Assaf (near Ishaqi, west of Balad) was also recaptured. Reports emerged of the recapture of the strategic village of Banat al-Hassan, which lies on the road between the holy city of Samarra and al-Mu’tassim district to the city’s south. On Monday (29th December), reports emerged of heavy clashes in Albu Hreen (south of Yathrib) and al-Tarisha (east of Mu’tassim), which resulted in 27 dead ISIS militants.
After the liberation of Yathrib, Qais al-Khaz’ali, the leader of Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq, paid a visit to his troops in Yathrib to congratulate them on their victory. He said to a nearby reporter, “What happened at the beginning of the victories against Da’esh (ISIS) was the securing of the Baghdad-Samarra road. However, these areas (Yathrib & its neighbours) remained strongholds of Da’esh and these strongholds became more dangerous, especially after the victories in Diyala, which meant that many of them (militants) retreated here which in turn endangered the safe areas and holy shrines in Balad.” He also added that “This victory is the beginning of a series of victories that will, God willing, liberate Salah ad-Din (province).”
Simultaneously, Iraqi security forces and Shia paramilitaries (mainly belonging to Badr Org) started to move in from the eastern province of Diyala. These forces used the bridge at al-Hawi to cross over the al-Adhaim river and assaulted ISIS positions around the besieged sub-district of Dhulu’iya. It was announced on Saturday by the Ministry of Interior that the Iraqi flag was flying above Dhulu’iya Air Base (formerly known as Samarra East Airfield). This operation is reportedly being masterminded by Hadi al-Amiri (leader of Badr) who described Dhulu’iya as a “fortress” for ISIS. After his recent victories in Diyala, al-Amiri promised that Balad, Dhulu’iya and the rest of Salah ad-Din province would soon be free.
On Sunday, an Iraqi Army Aviation helicopter reportedly hit an ISIS gathering in northeast Dhulu’iya, killing at least 11 militants. On Monday, Iraqi flags were reportedly raised over governmental buildings in Dhulu’iya as security forces and Shia paramilitaries entered the Sunni sub-district’s centre to huge celebrations from the locals. Heavy airstrikes were reportedly conducted by the Iraqi Air Force’s Su-25 jets on ISIS positions in Dhulu’iya.
The Hawi area (on the border between Diyala and Salah ad-Din provinces) was completely liberated, with security forces announcing that they killed around 20 militants. Troops from the Iraqi Army’s 5th Division (backed by Shia paramilitaries) were able to capture the Hay al-Amin village, allowing security forces to enter Dhulu’iya from the direction of Dhulu’iya Air Base. On a lighter note, reports emerged that security forces detained 10 ISIS militants who were trying to escape from the Albu Salibi village in Balad district, dressed as women.