When last we checked in on the battle for Ramadi, Iraqi forces had all but liberated the city, which fell to ISIS in May after what Defense Secretary Ash Carter says was a remarkable display of cowardice by the US-trained Iraqi regulars.
The city, some 60 miles west of Baghdad, is key both strategically and psychologically. It’s the veritable “heartland” of Iraq’s Sunni community and its liberation is seen as a kind of rehearsal for a planned operation in Mosul which fell to ISIS 18 months ago.
"In the coming days will be announced the good news of the complete liberation of Ramadi," army chief of staff Lt. General Othman al-Ghanemi said, earlier this week.
Now, it appears ISIS is on its last legs in the city. According to multiple sources, around 100 “diehard” militants are holed up in a former government compound. All that stands between the Iraqi army and the building are a series of IEDs (recall that ISIS set up a network of devices around the city in a failed attempt to check the army’s advance) and sniper fire.
"CTS has cleared Hoz neighbourhood in central Ramadi completely and arrived near the government complex," Iraq’s counter terrorism service said on Saturday. "The plan was to enter Hoz from Dhubbat but because of the mines, CTS changed tack and came in from the river bank.”
"Our troops are now advancing toward their targets but were delayed because the criminals have booby-trapped everything," Special operation commander Sami al-Aridhi says.
Here’s a map from AFP which depicts the current situation on the ground:
Three Iraqi soldiers and as many as two dozen ISIS fighters were killed on Friday alone. The military says 23 IEDs and two suicide bombers have been "destroyed" in the past 24 hours. The progress is also hampered by the presence of civilians who AFP says, are being used as shields: “The advance by the government forces has also been hampered by the possible presence of dozens of families trapped in the combat zone and used by IS as human shields.”
"Civilians who remain trapped in Ramadi have posed a formidable challenge for both the Iraqi troops and their U.S. air support," WSJ adds. "At least 120 families are trapped between Islamic State fighters and invading Iraqi soldiers in the eastern suburbs of Sejariya and Sofiya, said Mohamed al-Khozaee, a spokesman for the Iraqi Red Crescent Society."
"Most remaining civilians in the IS-held central district have taken shelter in the city's hospital, knowing that the army will not target it," Reuters notes, adding that although "the counter-terrorism forces are within 800 meters (0.5 mile) from the government complex,"the Iraqi military "has declined to give a time frame for the final onslaught to dislodge the militants. "The campaign's priority is to avoid casualties among civilians and the troops, no matter how long it takes," a spokesperson said.
The question, as we've noted on a number of occasions, is what happens "next." That is, Baghdad has deliberately excluded Iran's fearsome Shiite militias from the fight in an effort to avoid sparking a sectarian backlash among local Sunnis. But the Sunni tribesmen who are expected to hold the city once it's captured are undertrained and ill-equipped to hold territory in the face of a counter-offensive. One wonders how long the city will remain "liberated."
In any event, next is Mosul. Or so Abadi says. “The liberation of dear Mosul will be achieved with the cooperation and unity of all Iraqis after the victory in Ramadi,” the PM said, earlier this week.
That battle will be decisive. "Islamic State fighters have had more than a year and a half to establish themselves in Mosul since storming the city in the summer of last year," WSJ writes, adding that "they have built defenses including land mines and possibly tunnels, tactics used in other cities recaptured from the group, while ruling over hundreds of thousands of civilians who could be used as human shields."
If Mosul is recaptured, ISIS will have, for all intents and purposes, lost half of its "caliphate" and the US will have lost its excuse to operate in Iraq.
But it's hardly that simple. As Thomas Ricks, a US soldier who fought in the city wrote earlier this month, "there’s a lot of loose talk about 're-taking' Mosul [but] in my non-General Officer, very tactical-level opinion, an assault on this place would turn into a ten year siege, perhaps longer."