Ramadi falls amid counter claims. Continuing to look like a sectarian fight. 5-24 update added.
The news from Iraq is contradictory. The first and perhaps most significant bit of news is that Ramadi, the Capital of Anbar Governorate, has fallen to ISIS. At the same time we are assured by Secretary of State John Kerry that he is “absolutely confident in the days ahead that will be reversed.” We are also told that the U.S. is “expediting weapons shipments to the Iraqis because of Ramadi. The national government, meanwhile , claims that forces are already on the way to retake Ramadi. The president of Anbar Provincial Council reportedly claims that the national forces still control thirty percent of Ramadi. Despite U.S. claims to the contrary, Peter Mansoor, military analyst of CNN, stated that: “This is a huge setback to Iraqi forces and to the U.S. strategy to degrade and ultimately defeat ISIS.” CNN notes: “Soon, a predominantly Shiite militia dispatched by Iraq’s Prime Minister is expected to join the fight, further swelling the ranks of anti-ISIS ground forces but also threatening to inflame sectarian tensions.”
Several Hashd Al-Shaab Popular Mobilization Units, composed of Shia volunteer militia, have set up a defense perimeter outside of city limits to the east of Ramadi.
These Shia PMU helped in the retaking of Tikrit.The only Sunni tribal forces are those following Mahmaoud al Fahdawi from the Albu Fahad tribe. Meanwhile, the U.S. has stepped up it’s bombing runs on Ramadi city. The latter raises the spectre of Kobani, the city near the Turkish border that the Pesh Merga (Kurdish) forces have taken. But at a price. Kobani is virtually a ghost town of massive destruction after very heavy bombing. It’s difficult to imagine the former residents of Kobani feeling like they have won the battle for Kobani. Similarly, the Sunni tribespeople and large number of Bedouin who resided in Ramadi, can see a largely Shia force accompanied by massive U.S. bombing. One can only imagine their feelings looking out over the destruction wreacked there. BBC reports: “Retaking it is a massive challenge to the Iraqi government, which has had to appeal to the Shia militias despite risks of a sectarian backlash from sending them deep into the Sunni heartland.” Clearly the government forces bolstered by the more radical of the PMUs hope to make a stand at Habbaniya. At this writing they are boasting of their strength to hold Habbaniya, but we heard the same sort of rhetoric about Ramadi, so one can only listen to it with a high degree of skepticism.
It remains to be seen how an army or police force composed of nearly all Shia will succeed in Sunni territory. And yet, Muhannad Haimour, speaking for the governor of Anbar, insists that “any Iraqi who wishes to defend Iraq is welcome to do so, provided that they are fighting under the Iraqi banner and under the command and control of the Iraqi official security forces.” In short, the Shia dominated central government still is refusing to give military aid directly to the Sunni tribal militias, the very forces that would appear to have the best chances in battle against ISIS. And the U.S. still adheres to the demands of the Shia dominated government of Iraq, and sends weapons to them for distribution.
We can compound our errors in Iraq by allowing Iranian militia to assist the Shia government in these fights, thus adding to the sectarian divide that already has hampered our efforts against ISIS.
The U.S. seemingly is acknowledging the position that I have been arguing for some time. According to CNN, today Ashton Carter, the U.S. Secretary of Defense noted that in Ramadi, the Iraqis “vastly outnumbered” the ISIS fightersl, but “lacked the will to fight against the Islamic State.”
Hakim al-Zamili, Iraq’s parliamentary defence and security committee chairman, tried to blame the fall of Ramadi on the U.S. for not providing enough weapons or air support. This is a hollow denial, especially after the disgraceful way they ran from the much smaller ISIS force in abandoning Mosul. Once again, in their retreat from Ramadi, the Iraqi mostly Shia forces reportedly “left behind tanks, artillery pieces, armoured personnel carriers and Humvees.”
The problem is that Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi is under pressure from his right wing not to allow the Sunni tribal militia to receive weapons directly from the U.S., fearing that those will someday be used against the Shia dominated government.
Despite al-Zamili’s attempt to shift the blame for the fall of Ramadi onto the U.S., they clearly understood that, as is being demonstrated by their allowing the PMU Shia militias, over whom they have marginal control, and who the Sunni majority in Anbar don’t trust at all, to lead the effort to retake Habbaniya and protect an important air base.
If the U.S. is now admitting to the realities on the ground, they are too reluctant to apply the kinds of pressure on al-Abadi to force him to reverse his policies about the Sunni tribal forces. It may be time to threaten going around al-Abadi and dealing directly with the anti-ISIS Sunnis. Meanwhile pressures to increase the U.S. ground presence to at least 10,000 is mounting.