Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi pledged Tuesday during a victory visit to the city of Ramadi that by the end of 2016 Iraqi forces would rid Iraq of the Islamic State. Abadi’s euphoria was understandable. Since ISIS conquered Ramadi in May the Iraqi army, in cooperation with the Shi’ite militias, had been trying unsuccessfully to return the city to state control.
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In February 2014, the army took Ramadi, but in October the Islamic State came back and kicked the Iraqi soldiers out. Since then sporadic battles have been fought for control of Ramadi’s outskirts and other cities in Anbar Province.
Abadi also had good reason to be satisfied because, until about two months ago, Washington wasn’t at all sure the Iraqi army sought to liberate Ramadi. Abadi was criticized by U.S. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter for lacking the will to fight.
This lack of confidence led to fewer airstrikes on Ramadi and the feeling that the West too was unwilling to wrest the city from the Islamic State. This also led to a delay in implementing a plan to liberate Mosul in northern Iraq, the largest city under ISIS control. The battle for Mosul was planned for the spring of 2015; it still hasn’t taken place.
The turning point at Ramadi came after the Shi’ite militias proved themselves about 10 months ago. Those units are funded and trained by Iran and answer to Qasem Soleimani, commander of the Revolutionary Guards’ Quds Force.
Their first success was in liberating the cities of Tikrit and Baiji. At the same time, Kurdish forces were showing their mettle, chasing Islamic State forces out of Sinjar and other towns along the Turkish border.
Washington, despite its opposition to the Shi’ite militias, especially due to Sunni tribes’ fear of an Iranian Shi’ite takeover of their areas, changed its strategy after the Shi’ites’ successes and began to train forces to take Ramadi. That objective was intended as a test of the Iraqi army and the militias as a prelude to the main battle for the liberation of Mosul. There, cooperation will be needed among all kinds of forces – Shi’ites, Sunnis, Kurds, U.S. special forces and coalition jets.
As part of the preparations to liberate Ramadi, the United States expanded its training of Sunni tribesmen in the Ramadi area and armed them extensively. But the Americans failed to unite the tribesmen, some of whom swear allegiance to the Islamic State and were key to the group’s ability to control Ramadi with limited forces.
According to Iraqi commanders, some 30 percent of Ramadi is still in Islamic State hands, as are surrounding towns. The city itself has been devastated, including water mains and power lines. Most of its residents have fled – the population has shrunk to 10,000 from 200,000.
Those who fled can’t yet return. The city is filled with roadside bombs and mines left behind by the Islamic State, and snipers are still active in some parts. Also, infrastructure will need major work before people can come back and resume their lives.
Another fear is the expected settling of accounts between Sunni tribesmen who fought alongside the Iraqi army and Sunni tribesmen who fought with the Islamic State. Also, the city’s residents and all the Sunnis fear that the government will let the Shi’ite militias take over the city, as they did in Tikrit, Baiji and other cities, perpetrating horrific massacres.
While Abadi ordered the militias not to deploy inside the city, his control over them is not complete; their loyalty is foremost to their Iranian commanders and the politicians who support them.
Abadi’s test now is to translate military victory into a political strategy that gives the Sunnis a role in the government and a respectable slice of government funding. They would gain the sense of belonging that was lacking during the time of Abadi’s predecessor, Nouri al-Malaki.
This strategy is essential as Iraq invests as much strength as possible in preparation for the battle for Mosul, which the Islamic State was able to conquer largely because of deep alienation between the Sunni inhabitants and the government and Iraqi army, which they regard as an occupying force.
The liberation of Ramadi is an important tactical achievement in cutting off the connection between Ramadi and the Islamic State-held city of Fallujah. But its main importance is in the capture of the group’s southern bastion, from which it threatened to continue toward Baghdad and even Jordan and Saudi Arabia, given that ISIS controls a large part of the road.
It’s not clear whether the Iraqi army can continue its advance and liberate the other areas in Anbar Province, with its efforts now to be directed toward the anticipated battle for Mosul.