Monday, May 18, 2015
Rout of Ramadi reawakens Iraq to ‘brutal reality'
Second fall of city belies claims that the country’s military has learned how to hold its ground and that Islamic State is withering in the face of air strikes
Martin Chulov Guardian
Monday 18 May 2015 13.55 EDT Last modified on Monday 18 May 2015 19.20 EDT
When Ramadi was last overrun by jihadis nine years ago, the rest of Iraq slid rapidly into chaos. Now Iraqis are trying to come to terms with the fall of the city for a second time, with some predicting that this loss may prove even more catastrophic.
Islamic State took full control of Ramadi on Sunday night after Iraqi federal troops and police officers withdrew from the last government compounds and bases they had held since the militants stormed towards them on Friday. Outgunned though far from outmanned, up to 1,000 soldiers and officers were seen streaming from the city to a nearby highway, in scenes reminiscent of the fall of Mosul a year ago.
This was Isis’s biggest triumph since then – a victory that belied claims that it was withering in the face of relentless air strikes and that Iraq’s military had learned how to hold its ground. The rout left government officials reeling. By early Monday, ministers and paramilitary leaders were mobilising Shia militias to travel from Baghdad to take on the estimated 400 Isis fighters now in control of the city. Such was the speed of events that the prospect of Shia fighters being sent to the predominantly Sunni Anbar province met with little hostility from Ramadi residents, who until this week had disavowed the role that militias had played in the fighting elsewhere in the country.
“The ones to be blamed for this are the government and the local authorities in Ramadi,” said Saleh Eraqi, a police colonel who fled on Sunday after his brother was killed in the fighting. “The army don’t have the fighting spirit. They were there waiting for Isis to attack. They are poorly equipped comparing to Isis. We are fighting with guns and pistols while Isis have Humvees and IEDs and suicide bombers.
“There are many Sunnis inside the city who want to fight Isis but they don’t have the weapons. Our only hope is that we can get real support from the Americans.” Eraqi said the Shia militias, known as Hashd al-Shaabi, or the popular mobilisation units, faced an enormous challenge in winning back the city as Isis members stream towards it from elsewhere in Anbar province.
“The Hashd al-Shaabi can’t do it,” he said. “They will suffer huge losses. I saw Isis fighting; they were more than 250, most of them Iraqis with some foreigners, and they had support from sleeper cells inside the city. We fought them from 12 in the morning till 4pm but we almost ran out of weapons and had to withdraw.”
Ramadi, which sits on both the Euphrates river and a highway connecting Baghdad to the Jordanian and Syrian borders, has been the centre of gravity in Anbar province throughout the past 12 years of war and insurrection. It was a hub for foreign fighters crossing from Syria from 2003-07 and, over the past year, it has been contested by government forces and militants who have crept towards the city from Iraq’s western deserts.
Sunni tribal leaders were instrumental in protecting the city, just as they were in 2006 during a crucial phase of the US occupation in which Ramadi tribes rose up against the Islamic State of Iraq, an earlier incarnation of Isis, ousting the group from their midst with the support of US ground forces. But since then, some Sunni communities in Ramadi and Fallujah have been central to claims that Iraq’s post-US governments have pursued sectarian policies that benefit the majority Shias.
Sheikh Mohammed Saleh al-Bahari, a tribal leader whose members were involved in the battles at the weekend, said the loss of the city was a reflection of a decade of neglect both by the Shia-dominated central government and by exiled Sunni tribal leaders. “We are exhausted, we want security and to be able to walk in our streets,” he said. “We are tired, we want peace, we want to live, and the government is run by thieves and ignorant people. I know most of the decision-makers in Anbar who pretended to be tribal leaders. They used to be shoeless and now they own streets in Jordan. They are sitting outside Anbar in Baghdad, Irbil, Jordan or Dubai and deciding our future by [the messaging service] Viber.
“We are not welcoming Hashd in our city. We won’t fight them if they enter, but we are emotionally against them. They are an ethnic militia who will treat us badly. “The Hashd al-Shaabi think they can win Ramadi as quickly they won Salaheddine [the province surrounding Tikrit] but that’s a lie because Salaheddine is small compared to Ramadi. It was surrounded by other areas which they had already won, while Ramadi is a big city and is surrounded by desert.”
Shia militias led government troops in a successful battle to reclaim Saddam Hussein’s home town of Tikrit in late March. Along the way, though, the militias have faced persistent claims that some members have pursued sectarian agendas and committed abuses against some Sunni communities. While Hashd al-Shabi has struck alliances with some Sunni tribes near Tikrit, it is distrusted by Sunni residents in Diyyala province, north of Baghdad, who claim its fighters are answerable to no state authority.
Hakim Zamili, a member of the Iraqi parliament’s defence committee and leader of the Salam Brigades, a Shia militia, said other Anbar tribes had been more circumspect about militias being sent to replace the vanquished national army. “I have just finished a meeting with the leaders of Hashd al-Shaabi, Iraqi generals and the defence minister and we have put a plan to coordinate the fighting in Ramadi,” he said. “I have received many requests from the tribe leaders in Anbar asking us to bring the Hashd al-Shaabi to defend them.” Ihsan Shimari, a Baghdad-based political analyst, said the fall of Ramadi was a wakeup call for Iraqi citizens who had been persuaded by the government that the campaign against Isis had been going well, especially since the reclaiming of Tikrit.
“Iraqis are easily misled by their emotions and they used to believe in a quick victory, but now they are hit with a harsh reality in Ramadi,” he said. “Now they believe that the war against Isis will be long and difficult. It took them a long time to understand that brutal reality. The militias dwarf Iraq’s embattled security forces in number and influence. With resolute backing from Iran, they have led the war against Isis since June, regularly taking primacy over Iraqi forces, to whom they readily cede credit for most battlefield successes.
“Hashd al-Shaabi … are stronger because they are ideological,” said Shimari. “They are better organised and some of their brigades even have better weapons than the Iraqi army.” Naim al-Ubaidi, a leader of Asaib ahl al-Haq, one of the militias that plays a leading role under the Hashd al-Shaabi banner, said: “The Iraqi government asked us last night to intervene and rescue the city. We know that decision came late and we warned [the prime minister, Haidar] al-Abadi that they won’t achieve victory without us, but we know that he was under pressure from the Americans to not let us be involved in this operation.
“All the brigades are now gathering their elite fighters to go for the battle in Ramadi and we are expecting the rescue the city within few days. The fighting in Ramadi will be easier for us than the operations in Salaheddine because of the collaboration of the tribes. “Ramadi has fallen under the eyes of the Americans and they haven’t done anything. This isn’t like what happened in Irbil when the Americans intervened there and prevented the fall of Irbil at all costs. This tells us that Iraqis are the ones who should deal with their problems together and get united to fight their enemies.”
The US military said it had carried out nine air strikes as Isis advanced and officials in Washington said they were confident that the city could be retaken with their ongoing air support. If so, that would almost certainly mean that the US would be flying in support of militia forces, rather than the national army.
Asa’ib ahl al-Haq and the Jeish al-Mehdi, both strong allies of Iran, were two of the US military’s most formidable foes from 2006-11, accounting for more than 25% of its casualties, according to figures provided by Washington.
The US relationship with Iraq’s Sunnis was at times equally fraught. However, it reached a high point in Anbar in 2007, when a grassroots revolt was amplified by an increased presence of US troops, which curbed violence drastically in Anbar. Sheik Saddon al-Eifan, from the town of Amriyat al-Fallujah, said: “We in Anbar need any help we can get to get rid of Isis. They are attacking every family who fought against them and seeking revenge from everyone. We are now between two bad choices but we prefer the Hashd, and once they kick out Isis from our city we will ask them to leave.
“We need the Americans to intervene in our reconciliation like they did before in order to bring us together to fight Isis. We all want to fight but we don’t have faith in the Iraqi government and it will take a lot to make us believe in them again.” Additional reporting by Mais al-Baya’a.