In Major "Psychological" Victory, Iraq Liberates Sunni "Heartland" From ISIS

“The Iraqi forces just showed no will to fight. They were not outnumbered. In fact they vastly outnumbered the opposing force and yet they failed to fight and withdrew from the site...We can give them training, we can give them equipment. We obviously can’t give them the will to fight.”

That’s what Ash Carter had to say about the Iraqi army’s half-hearted attempt to defend Ramadi, which fell to ISIS in May. As we documented earlier this month, retaking the city is seen as a major psychological milestone for Baghdad as Iraq draws up plans for an assault on Mosul, which has been under Islamic State control for some 18 months.  

"It's the biggest city in Iraq's largest province and the heartland of the Sunni community of Iraq,” Al Jazeera's Imran Khan says of Ramadi, adding that “it's a big trading post for the country as well, with roads leading into Jordan and Syria.”

The effort to retake the city - which is about 60 miles west of Baghdad - had been hampered by a network of IEDs ISIS constructed to keep the army out and citizens in. Around two weeks ago, Iraqi regulars managed to retake a strategic operations center and appeared poised to drive the militants from the city. Here’s what the situation on the ground looked like at the time:

Desperate to get in on the action, The Pentagon offered to send Apache helicopters to assist Baghdad in finishing the job, which is amusing because the total number of Islamic State fighters operating in the city is thought to be just 300. PM Haider Abadi politely declined just as he did the last time Ash Carter offered to send choppers and their crews to Baghdad and on Tuesday, after “ferocious” fighting, the Iraqi army all but routed ISIS in the city. 

“Government forces expect to dislodge Islamic State militants from the western Iraqi city of Ramadi within days,” Reuters reports, citing state television and army chief of staff Lt. General Othman al-Ghanemi. 

"In the coming days will be announced the good news of the complete liberation of Ramadi," al-Ghanemi said. 

As Reuters goes on to note, “the offensive started on Tuesday at dawn, when units crossed the Euphrates river into central districts using two bridges - one rebuilt by army engineers, and a second floating structure.”

“We went into the center of Ramadi from different axes, and we started clearing residential areas,” Gen. Sabah al-Numani, a spokesman for the army counterterrorism unit in charge of the offensive, said in a statement Tuesday. “The city will be cleared within the coming 72 hours," he continued. The New York Times has more color:

Six hundred to 1,000 Islamic State fighters were said to have been in Ramadi when the overall offensive began two weeks ago, but several hundred of them have been killed in fighting and airstrikes since then, according to Iraqi and Western officials.

 

Those remaining did not appear to be giving up easily. Iraqi forces, including a mix of soldiers and policemen along with a contingent of Sunni tribal fighters, faced heavy fire and were assaulted by car bombs, Iraqi officials said. And fighters for the Islamic State destroyed three bridges over the Euphrates River to slow the security forces’ advance, according to Gen. Ahmed al-Belawi, the leader of a battalion of Sunni tribal fighters. The force crossed on Tuesday using portable bridges supplied by American forces, officials said.

 

 

If the Iraqi forces manage to fully reassert control over Ramadi — the provincial capital of Anbar Province, in the Sunni Arab heartland — it would be the most important of a series of military setbacks for the Islamic State since its explosive expansion across Iraq that began with the capture of Mosul last year.


In early April, Iraqi forces and Shiite militias drove the Islamic State out of the city of Tikrit, and in October retook control of the northern city of Baiji and its oil refinery. Last month, Kurdish and Yazidi forces assaulted the northern city of Sinjar, driving out fighters with the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL.


The capture of Ramadi, 60 miles from Baghdad, would give the government of Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi a badly needed morale lift, and a successful cooperative effort with the country’s alienated Sunnis. 

And therein lies the problem. Iraq hasn't enlisted the help of Iran's powerful Shiite militias in the battle for Ramadi as Baghdad feared doing so would risk triggering a sectarian backlash. But as we documented earlier this month, the risk is that poorly trained and inadequately armed Sunni tribesmen will ultimately be left to hold territory captured by the army. How reliable they would be in the face of an ISIS counter-offensive is an open question, especially considering the fact that Islamic State is of course Sunni and many Iraqi Sunnis distrust Tehran's militias and are skeptical of Shiite lawmakers in Baghdad.

Whatever the case, the takeaway is that ISIS is gradually losing ground in Iraq and it's no thanks to the Americans. While US airstrikes played a role in the assault on Sinjar, the victory there was largely attributable to the Kurds. The success at Baiji owed much to Iran's Shiite militias and it now appears the Iraqi regulars are set to take Ramadi without the help of Ash Carter's Apaches. 

Be that as it may, the US is still doing its part. Remember, Washington's warplanes "accidentally" killed a handful of Iraqi troops advancing on Fallujah last week.