In a move likely to assist in rehabilitating the heavily-compromised reputation of the Iraqi military, Iraqi forces, along with U.S. air support, are successfully closing in on the government compound being used by Islamic State as their central stronghold in the heart of Ramadi. Ramadi is a major Iraqi city and regional capital of politically significant Anbar province, which fell to IS militants in May in what was a major blow to the credibility and popularity of the Iraqi government. The counter assault began on Tuesday and is led primarily by Iraqi military forces and U.S.-backed and trained Sunni militia.
In May, the heavy use of armored Vehicle Borne Improvised Explosive Devices (VBIEDs) and other suicide bombers led to the humiliatingly quick rout of the Iraqi forces defending the city. Many questions were asked about the effectiveness of these troops, especially as the bulk of them had been selected, equipped, and trained by the U.S. military and its coalition partners. Since Ramadi, embedded advisers and Special Forces units have been re-training these troops alongside hand-picked Sunni militia groups, and it would seem that this training has paid off. The Iraqi units have also been equipped with approximately 200 anti-tank missiles, which have been used to great effect against IS VBIEDs.
Since Tuesday, progress has been slow but sure. The advance of the assault has been hampered by an improbably high number of IEDs, booby traps, suicide bombers, and the aforementioned vehicle borne devices, but the Iraqi army has advanced steadily, leaving the locally-based Sunni militia in their wake in order to hold captured territory. NGOs and aid workers have already expressed concerns about human rights violations that may be committed by these militia, many of whom are known to use brutal tactics to pacify areas under their control, but there are, as yet, no reported incidents.
U.S. intelligence sources indicated that only 250-350 IS fighters remain in Ramadi. A much larger force was previously present, but it seems that the months long U.S.-backed campaign to cut off all lines of supply to the city has paid off, with many fighters abandoning the city in the lead up to the assault. Criticism had been levelled against the Iraqi authorities for dilatory tactics and poor information security, as well as for announcing the assault. Iraqi officials made it clear, however, that they were determined to grant the maximum possible opportunity for civilians to flee the city before the assault began. It is reported that IS militants have imposed strict curfews and prevented most of the civilian population from leaving. This has been made easier by the fact that Ramadi is a major center of local support for the Islamic State movement. This combination of human shields and local sympathy has further slowed the advance.
U.S. airstrikes have been of significant help to the assault, and it is reported that Iraqi forces are less than a mile from the government compound in the center of Ramadi, which is their primary objective. It is believed that there are approximately 150 IS fighters holding the compound, and that, like in Sinjar and Tikrit, they intend to fight to the death. Despite various outlets reporting that the Iraqi forward positions are no more than 300 meters from the objective, IS resistance has escalated dramatically in the approaches to their stronghold.
Ibrahim al-Fahdawi, head of the security committee in Khaldiya district, was quoted in ABC Online as saying that IS is using “everything it has” in a last ditch defense. Despite the gains of the past day, military and government spokespeople are urging patience, as this final phase of the assault is likely to take some time. Media outlets were cautioned against likening this assault to the swift re-taking of Sinjar, as Ramadi is a much larger city with a much denser population. Iraqi military intelligence suspects that up to 120 families are trapped between the opposing forces and have been placed there to act as human shields for IS.
The assault is not just a political coup for the increasingly unpopular Al-Abadi. The U.S. has come under its share of ridicule for its apparently ineffective training and arming program, as well as for its support for the often rash and openly anti-American Al-Abadi. So far, most of the significant gains against IS in Iraq have been accomplished by Iranian-backed Shiite militia, who do not co-ordinate with U.S.-backed forces. The capture of Ramadi will be the first real major vindication of the U.S.’s program of re-training and re-arming local forces. In fact, it already is being seen as just that by many commentators, who point out the significant difference between the tenor of the current assault group, and the apparent helplessness of these same forces just seven months ago.
According to the BBC, the government compound that was the main objective in Ramadi was taken on Sunday. Reports indicate that Iraqi forces spent hours inching forward until they came under sniper fire from the compound. Once this fire had been shut down and aerial surveillance indicated no enemy presence, Iraqi forces made an entry and are now slowly clearing the building as they fear it may have been rigged to explode. Military spokesman Sabah al-Numani has declared IS defeated in Ramadi. He said that there was “no sign” of IS fighters within the complex, but that there may be pockets of resistance elsewhere in the city. There are confirmed reports of fighting in other regions of the city, but most analysts agree that Ramadi has fallen to the Iraqi Government.
Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi has been cautiously upbeat about the assault. In a statement reported by Reuters, he announced that wresting Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, back from the militants will be the very next order of business. Experts warn, however, that this is likely to be a protracted process. Given Mosul’s size and complexity, as well as its importance to the highly-committed IS forces, it is possible that any assault on Mosul could be measured over weeks and months rather than days. Re-capturing this city, however, would largely represent the end of an effective IS presence in Iraq.
[Photo by John Moore/Getty Images]