THE FALL OF RAMADI, the capital of Anbar province, on May 17 is the biggest military and political setback the Iraqi government has suffered since the fall of Mosul last year. Now the Islamic State (I.S.) is in full control of two major cities in Iraq. The fall of Ramadi coincided with the I.S.’ capture of Palmyra in neighbouring Syria. Approximately half of Syria’s territory is now in the hands of the I.S. With the capture of Ramadi, a Sunni-dominated city, a large part of Iraq is also under the sway of the extremist outfit, which styles itself as an Islamic caliphate. The capture of Ramadi comes soon after a joint force of the Iraqi army and Shia militias ejected the I.S. from the city of Tikrit, another Sunni-dominated town and the birthplace of Saddam Hussein. The Iraqi army had even started talking about liberating Mosul, Iraq’s second-biggest city, which is home to over a million people, when the military debacle in Ramadi happened. Its liberation will now be delayed even further.
There are conflicting reports about the events surrounding the army’s humiliating defeat in Ramadi. Initial reports said that the I.S. staged a predawn attack that involved a wave of 24 car bomb suicide attacks followed by a wave of 30 suicide bombers attacking the front lines. Other reports suggest that Iraqi special forces abandoned their positions in the city without much of a fight, leaving their sophisticated equipment, including American-supplied tanks and armoured vehicles, behind. The United States claimed that the I.S. launched its attack when a sandstorm was buffeting Ramadi and that poor visibility prevented the deployment of U.S. air power against the advancing enemy. The Iraqi army had deployed 15 divisions and its best weaponry in Anbar province. Yet, it could not defend the city or retake territory in this Sunni-dominated province in central Iraq. The government in Baghdad now holds less than 10 per cent of the territory there. The faith of the average Iraqi in his country’s armed forces has suffered another serious dent. Much of the large Anbar province is desert terrain and lightly populated.
Ramadi is only 110 kilometres from Baghdad and its fall has led to another refugee influx into the Iraqi capital. Braving the searing summer heat, thousand of Ramadi’s residents fled, many of them on foot. More than 40,000 refugees were allowed into Baghdad. Others went to smaller cities. The central government fears that I.S. suicide bombers may use the refugee influx as a cover to stage attacks in Baghdad as the I.S. has been loudly claiming that the capital is next on its radar.
U.S. Secretary of Defence Ashton Carter blamed the fall of Ramadi on the lack of a “will to fight” among Iraqi troops, though they greatly outnumbered the I.S. forces laying siege to the city. Earlier, the Chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Martin Dempsey, said that the Iraqi forces were not driven out. “They drove out of Ramadi,” he sarcastically commented. The Defence Secretary’s remarks came in for harsh criticism from Iraqi officials. A spokesman for Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi said that the Defence Secretary had “incorrect information” about the situation that was prevailing at the time in Ramadi. An Iraqi army officer fighting on the front line in Anbar province said that his forces had conducted a “tactical withdrawal” and that the Iraqi army would prove very soon that the American charges of cowardice under fire were unfounded. U.S. Vice-President Joe Biden tried to make amends for the Defence Secretary’s statement by assuring Abadi that his country would continue to be an ally in the fight against the I.S. He also praised the “enormous sacrifice and bravery of the Iraqi forces”.
Gen. Qassem Soleimani, head of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, blamed the U.S. for not doing anything to stop the I.S. advance on Ramadi. Observers of the region have said that the U.S. could have used its air power more effectively to stop the I.S. advance. The U.S. and Iran are tacitly cooperating in Iraq in the fight against the I.S. This cooperation was evident in the successful bid to retake Tikrit, where the U.S. used its air power to help Iranian-trained militias to defeat the I.S. The U.S. has trained and equipped the Iraqi army at a cost of $22 billion to its exchequer. The Iraqi army no doubt has to shoulder most of the responsibility for the failure to defend Iraq’s major cities. Soleimani said that only Iran and its close allies were really serious about fighting the I.S. “[President Barack] Obama has not done a damn thing so far to confront the Daesh [the Arabic acronym for the I.S.]. Doesn’t that show that there is no will in America to confront it?” he said.
U.S. military officials have now admitted that they have not been attacking important I.S. targets in the cities under their control. The reason they gave was that the U.S. wanted to safeguard civilian lives and prevent unnecessary collateral damage. Iraqi officials said that the limited air strikes allowed the I.S. free movement on the battlefield. An Iraqi officer told The New York Times : “We lost large territories in Anbar because of the inefficiencies of the U.S.-led coalition air strikes.” U.S. air strikes against I.S. targets in Iraq and Syria average around 15 a day. In Libya, during the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation-led attack in 2012, there were about 50 strikes a day in the first two months. In the initial stages of the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, there were about 80 air strikes every day. Since its major battlefield successes in Syria and Iraq in the beginning of the year, the I.S. has become better armed and highly motivated. As recent battles have shown, the I.S. is able to deploy hundreds of suicide bombers at short notice.
Prime Minister al-Abadi has pledged to liberate Ramadi “within days”. This time, he is relying more on the Iranian-trained militias. Thousands of fighters from Shia militias under the banner of Popular Mobilisation Committees along with more than a thousand policemen started their counteroffensive in the last week of May from the city of Habbaniyah, one of the last government-controlled cities in Anbar province. The militias are backed by units of the Iraqi army’s “Golden Division”. Retaking Ramadi is the al-Abadi government’s topmost priority.
The deployment of Shia militias on the Ramadi front has come in for criticism from some leading Sunni politicians in Iraq. In fact, it was their vociferous objections, which had the support of the U.S., that made the Iraqi Prime Minster decide against their participation in the fight against the I.S. in many parts of Anbar province. Initially, the U.S. had even threatened to not provide air cover if Shia militias were deployed in the fight to liberate Tikrit. The argument put forward was that the deployment of Shia forces would further widen the sectarian divide in the country. In the first place, the U.S played a big role in fostering the sectarian divide as it spearheaded the overthrow of secular regimes in Iraq and Libya. In Syria, too, the U.S. has played the sectarian card to the hilt. The I.S. itself is in a way a creation of the U.S. Before I.S. fighters started openly flaunting the black banner of global jehad, the West and its regional allies supported them in their bid to overthrow the government of Bashar al-Assad in Syria. Millions of dollars worth of equipment, funded by lavish donors in countries such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Kuwait were funnelled into Syria under the auspices of the Turkish and Jordanian governments. A 2012 U.S. Defence Intelligence Agency assessment stated that the U.S. and the Gulf monarchies were in favour of a Salafist state covering the eastern part of Syria and the western part of Iraq.
After the invasion of Iraq, some influential policymakers in the U.S. were openly talking of carving up Iraq into three parts: a Shia-dominated South, a Sunni-populated central part and a Kurd-dominated north. Northern Iraq is for all practical purposes already functioning as an independent entity. The Obama administration now plans to arm the Kurd and Sunni militias directly without even bothering to consult the government in Baghdad. The U.S. also thought that it would be able to replicate the “Sunni awakening” that it manipulated in 2007 in Anbar province by once again getting tribal chiefs on board. The uprising led by jehadi groups in the last decade was defeated by a combination of military force and money power. At the time, there were thousands of U.S. military boots on the ground. The Sunni Awakening Force that fought alongside them was handsomely compensated. All the same, it took the U.S. a long time to recapture the city of Fallujah, which had fallen into the hands of Al Qaeda-aligned fighters.
Hawkish politicians in the U.S., such as the old warmonger John McCain, are once again calling for the deployment of U.S. troops in Iraq to fight the I.S. At the same time, the Obama administration has announced a joint plan with Turkey to arm and train anti-Assad militants to fight in Syria. The Syrian government, which is facing a major threat from the I.S., is being forced to fight on various fronts because of the machinations of the U.S. and its allies. The I.S. is having the last laugh.