On May 17, 2015, the Iraqi army abandoned its positions and equipment and fled the city of Ramadi, effectively ceding control to IS. This was the culmination of a long fight, taking place over much of the previous year, with reports, some unconfirmed, of multiple phases of gain and loss in the city. World perception, however, was somewhat vague on the preceding campaign, but the one point that came through as crystal clear was that the Iraqi army had been humiliatingly defeated. The cost of training Iraqi forces, their fighting quality, and the wisdom of discharging almost all of the army as it was during the U.S. invasion, all came in for withering criticism. At home and abroad, the Iraqi army had gained a reputation for cowardice and ineffectiveness. The New York Times, quoting various western military analysts, reported early in the expansion of IS into Northern Iraq that the army was basically a null factor in the fight against IS.
Fast forward to today, and there are confirmed reports that this same Iraqi army has taken the government compound being used as an IS headquarters in central Ramadi. There has been a months long campaign of cutting supply lines to the city, which has been so successful that by the time the assault started this week, it was estimated that less than 400 IS fighters remained in Ramadi. The campaign has been gruelling and costly. At every stage, U.S.-led coalition air power has been supporting the campaign and providing direct support to the assault. But until the ignominious retreat of the Iraqi army in May, very few people had even heard of Ramadi. Apart, that is, from those familiar with Iraq, who were uncomfortably aware that the city now in IS hands was 68 miles from Baghdad.
Possibly the most important aspect of the assault on Ramadi is its propaganda value. The 2014 blitz expansion by IS seems to have caught Iraqi forces flat-footed as they lost important centers like Mosul and Ramadi, as well as key small towns. Iraq has been fighting a mostly unsuccessful campaign to retake Anbar province, where Ramadi is located, and the reputation of its U.S.-trained forces has taken a beating. The retaking of Ramadi is expected to significantly affect the standing of the army in the eyes of the Iraqi people. Not only this, the army’s morale, a critically important factor in its will to fight, is similarly expected to experience significant uplift in the wake of the successful assault on Ramadi.
But Ramadi is not just a propaganda target. It is the capital of Anbar province, an important regional center and also the heartland of the Sunni population in Iraq. It also sits astride one of the region’s most significant road links and is in a key position to control movement between the north and south of Iraq. Given that Iraq’s second largest city, Mosul, is currently in IS hands, the taking of Ramadi is a necessary first step to eventually wresting Mosul from the grip of Islamic State. Mosul is seen as the de-facto “capital” of IS in Iraq. Should Mosul fall back into government hands, then it would be possible for the Prime Minister Abadi to claim that IS has finally lost control of the northern part of his country. Mosul, however, has been occupied for more than a year and is a much larger city. The successive assaults on towns like Tikrit, then Ramadi, represents an upward arc of proven capability for the Iraqi army. While it is likely that any assault on Mosul could take months or even years, the capture of Ramadi is important proof to both themselves and to the Iraqi people that the army is capable of conducting assaults on major cities.
It should also be noted that the effectiveness (or otherwise) of the Iraqi army has been seen as a major factor in western decisions about whether or not intervene militarily. The strictly limited military response by the U.S. and its allies in northern Iraq can be seen as being greatly affected by a lack of faith in the Iraqi army to act as a reliable partner, as well as its perceived inability to consolidate on any gains that might be made. If the Iraqi army can hold Ramadi successfully, in conjunction with its U.S.-trained militia partners, Iraq will be in a much stronger position when asking for additional support in the proposed attack on Mosul.
In the wake of the U.S.-led invasion, when the Maliki government proved to be sectarian and divisive, Anbar province was one of the main wellsprings of the Sunni insurgency. In the midst of Islamic State’s initial explosive expansion, Al Jazeera reported that religious and tribal leaders in Ramadi and nearby Fallujah were pledging support to IS, claiming that the only way to peace was to co-operate with the leadership of the Sunni IS. There is still some doubt as to whether this support was pledged entirely freely, but there is no question that Anbar province has provided first the insurgency and then IS with plenty of local support. This has been driven in part by the Iraqi army’s heavy reliance on Iranian-backed militia (the Popular Mobilization Front), who are Shi’ite, and have a reported record of conducting violent reprisals against Sunni populations. The strategy of using those local Sunni militia who were willing to side with the U.S. coalition to hold territory taken by the ISF is seen as an important step towards healing this sectarian divide. It is well-known that U.S. forces do not co-ordinate directly with the Shi’ite militias, and this distance may help with the credibility of the Iraqi army among Ramadi locals. This is considered to be of extreme importance when considering the Iraqi government’s ability to hold the province once taken. It is highly unlikely that Iraqi forces will be able to sustain or even contemplate an assault on Mosul unless Ramadi, in particular, and Anbar province in general, are secure in their rear.
In short, the capture of Ramadi represents a victory for the Iraqi government on three levels. It is an important strategic stepping stone on the way to the re-taking of the north, a major boost for the confidence and morale of its battered armed forces and a significant factor in re-gaining the confidence of the public in the government’s ability to both secure and unite the war-torn and divided country.
[Photo by Chris Hondros/Getty Images]