To recapture Ramadi from Islamic State, Iraq must use this formula

May 18, 2015
Displaced Sunni people, who fled the violence in the city of Ramadi, arrive at the outskirts of Baghdad

Displaced Sunnis, who fled the violence in the city of Ramadi, arrive at the outskirts of Baghdad, April 17, 2015. REUTERS/Stringer

The fall of Ramadi, the capital of Iraq’s largest province, is a major defeat for the Iraqi security forces. It follows a period in which a number of strategic advances have been made by Iraqi forces elsewhere in the north and east of the war-torn country. Dreams of an offensive to defeat Islamic State in Mosul this year will now be crushed. Iraq will instead focus its resources and attention on liberating Ramadi, which lies just 60 miles to the west of Baghdad.

The complex realities on the ground will also lead to difficult choices being made on all sides of the conflict. Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi’s approval to send in the Shi’ite-dominated Hashid Shaabi paramilitary forces to the Sunni-dominated Anbar region will worry many, but it comes at the request of local Sunnis who are desperate to defend their areas against Islamic State. The Anbar governor, provincial council and local tribes have publically asked Baghdad to send in these paramilitary forces to support Iraq’s security forces and Sunni tribesmen.

Unlike in Tikrit, several Sunni tribes in Ramadi have already been resisting Islamic State for years now. As 3,000 Shi’ite fighters have deployed to the west of Ramadi following Abadi’s green light, 4,000 Sunni tribesmen have now been deployed in the west to prevent further Islamic State advances in Anbar. Sunni-Shi’ite military cooperation — aside from the official security forces that are themselves mixed — will be a crucial element in this campaign. Sunni tribal fighters are also officially part of the Hashid Shaabi in Anbar, so this paramilitary force is no longer exclusively Shi’ite.

U.S.-Iran relations in Iraq have also changed significantly over the years. The United States and Iran have gone from an era of undeclared but open warfare during the occupation to coordinated efforts to avoid collisions between air forces and even tacit military cooperation (with U.S. air strikes paving the way for Iranian-backed militia advances in the Salahuddin province) as Islamic State made advances across Iraq. The ongoing military campaign in Ramadi will further strengthen this trend: the U.S. ambassador today said the only condition the United States has for approving Hashid Shaabi deployment across Iraq is that they be under the command of the Iraqi security forces. In other words, the United States now accepts that they are an effective fighting force and needed on the ground, but the United States also wants to contain Iran’s growing influence.

Iraq is in a tough spot. Both the United States and Iran are strategic allies, and Baghdad needs both U.S. airpower and Iranian commanders on the ground to push back Islamic State. Getting them to publicly acknowledge each other will be impossible, but Baghdad will welcome this “condition” because it also wants to reassert its control and bring the Hashid Shaabi — which is now an official body under the office of the prime minister — under its own command.

Far from being a simple struggle for power between Sunnis and Shi’ites, both intra-Sunni and intra-Shi’ite dynamics are going to play a massive role in the failure or success of this military campaign, as well as the future of Iraq.

Sunni tribes — and even families — are bitterly split in Anbar, with kinsmen fighting with and against Islamic State. As the conflict in Ramadi develops, tribal revenge attacks will be bloody whichever way it ends.

Abadi also has hardline Shi’ites, especially elements still loyal to former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, trying to undermine him at every turn. As he balances between the United States and Iran, he has to deal with powerful militia commanders who will resist attempts of the Iraqi state to take full control over their fighters even as they deploy alongside government troops.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article mistakenly said Ramadi is east of Baghdad. It is actually to the west.

8 comments

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Not America’s problem. Bush was an idiot for taking away the government there. Republicans were idiots for voting for him. Twice.

Posted by AlkalineState | Report as abusive

“….but the United States also wants to contain Iran’s growing influence.”

Why? Iran is the country in the Middle East fighting against ISIS. Chasing them down and killing them, just like we’re trying to do. The real problem is Saudi Arabia twiddling its thumbs and sending money to ISIS. Stop supporting Saudi Arabia, and much of this problem goes away. Oil kills.

Posted by AlkalineState | Report as abusive

“If you are holding a hammer every problem looks like a nail”
We keep seeing TV video of F16s, F18s and even B1Bs making large explosions from large smart bombs.
Presumably big profits for the corporate suppliers of these expensive weapons.
But Daesh fighters seem to be dispersed and mobile, and able to tactically concentrate and beseige and ambush. So maybe even cannon fire from Korean War era planes would be more effective.
As a computer screen “general” I would like to see hundreds of cheap drones firing machine guns at any jihadi that moves, and infantry anti-tank missiles at hardened targets, piloted by game winners on Xboxes. Maybe only the Chinese could do this due to vested interests in the USA.

Posted by Neurochuck | Report as abusive

@AlkalineState Speaking of idiots when in fact idiots like you and the rest of the dumbocrats voted Obama the king of idiots in twice. This whole Iraq mess wouldn’t be controlled by ISIS if Obama wouldn’t have been in such a hurry to get out of there. History will judge both Bush and Obama and I am sure Obama will be the worst president in American history with Bush also near the bottom. God help us.

Posted by fedupaj | Report as abusive

Ramadi is 60 miles west of Baghdad… not east. 60 miles east is the Iran border.

Posted by ScraySJ | Report as abusive

The terrorist kingdom of Saudi Arabia supports Daesh. And they are our allies??????

Posted by No_apartheid | Report as abusive

US F..ed up this place entirely, killing about a million people and injuring & displacing millions other in the name of false claims of WMD. Afterwards, Shia’s Govt takes over and forget about minorities rights. ISIL is simply a small gang of fighters who won’t last much long, U.S is already looking for a replacement group because unfortunately to keep fight against terroism, US will keep inventing new groups. The major problem is Arab’s themselves, apparently they can’t get along so outsiders will continue to kick their behind and they still don’t learn

Posted by John317 | Report as abusive

fedupa complains: “This whole Iraq mess wouldn’t be controlled by ISIS if Obama wouldn’t have been in such a hurry to get out of there.”

Too bad. AMERICA was in a hurry to get out of there. You republicans should have never gotten us entangled to begin with. You people got American kids killed for absolutely nothing. Shame on you.

Posted by AlkalineState | Report as abusive