On the evening of 2 February, according to various security sources, CF aircraft conducted an airstrike against an IS hideout in the Zaidan area of the Abu Ghraib district, western Baghdad province. ISF, likely comprising a Counter-Terrorism Service unit supported by 55th Brigade, 17th Iraqi Army Division, conducted a follow-on operation in the target area. ISF recovered the corpses of four IS militants along with light weapons, four explosive belts, communication devices, and other assets.
Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi stated that the airstrike killed a senior IS leader called Abu Hassan al-Ghreibawi. The official was described as the head of the IS South Governorate. The airstrike also killed an IS transportation official called Ghanim Sabah. The Commander-in-Chief’s Spokesman, Maj. Gen. Yahia Rasul, added that Ghreibawi supervised the 21 January suicide bombings in Baghdad, and Sabah supported their movements. “The heroes of our security services killed two criminals involved in the bombing of Baghdad’s Tayaran Square.” Rasul and other Iraqi officials asserted that Iraqi intelligence services provided CF with the information used to conduct the airstrike.
Joint Operations Command Spokesman Maj. Gen. Tahsin al-Khafaji later claimed that the airstrike directly thwarted planned suicide attacks. “When the security forces killed the transporter of the suicide bombers and the planner of the suicide attacks, they found four explosive belts, and these belts were prepared for future suicide terrorist operations.” While not entirely implausible, the overwhelming majority of explosive belts possessed by insurgents are relatively small devices intended for use as a weapon of last resort to avoid capture during compromising conditions. It is not particularly likely that the airstrike removed suicide vests prepared for imminent attacks.
The 2 February airstrike represented another key victory for the GoI as part of efforts to avenge the Baghdad bombings and restore confidence in security provisions. This significant event closely follows the operation that killed the IS governor of Iraq in southern Kirkuk province on 27 January. It is certainly possible that intelligence gleaned from that operation supported the CF airstrike on 2 February. Broader enhancements in CF and ISF intelligence operations following the 21 January suicide bombings in Baghdad are also a consideration. As with the 27 January operation and other recent operations resulting in IS losses, ISF remain highly dependent upon CF for precision airstrike capabilities and supporting intelligence.
The so-called IS South Governorate encompasses IS operations in much of Baghdad province, excluding northern approaches, and environments of southern Iraq, particularly restive areas of northern Babel province. The removal of this commander and his counterparts is expected to degrade relevant IS attack capabilities in this sector to some extent. It remains to be seen if this operation and other recent effective counter-IS operations will prove capable of preventing additional high-profile attacks in Baghdad city and other urban environments. Associated threats are best viewed as “not if, but when,” with the duration of delays generally tied to the often-unquantifiable effectiveness of overall security measures.
For further discussion and analysis, please see the full report.