Belfast Telegraph

UK Website Of The Year

Home News World

Isis seizes Ramadi: Battle now is to defend the road to Baghdad

BY PATRICK COCKBURN

Published 18/05/2015

Security forces defend their headquarters against Islamic State extremists during a sandstorm in Ramadi. (AP)
Security forces defend their headquarters against Islamic State extremists during a sandstorm in Ramadi. (AP)
Isis fighter hanging a flag of the group in a street of Ramadi, the Iraqi capital of Anbar province
An image grab taken from a video uploaded on May 18, 2015 by Aamaq News Agency, a Youtube channel which posts videos from areas under the Islamic State (IS) group's control, allegedly shows IS fighters in a street of Ramadi

Shia militiamen will now attempt to block the road to Baghdad after Isis fighters defeated elite units of the Iraqi armed forces and captured the city of Ramadi, 70 miles west of the capital.

The fall of Ramadi is the worst military disaster suffered by the Iraqi government since it lost the north of Iraq to an Isis offensive almost a year ago. One local councillor in Ramadi described the situation as “total collapse”.

Burnt bodies litter the streets and there are reports of massacres of policemen and tribesmen opposed to the self-proclaimed “Islamic State”.

Armoured vehicles belonging to the Iraqi army’s so-called “Golden Division”, considered its best unit, could be seen streaming out of Ramadi in a retreat that looked, at times, as if it had turned into a rout. Heavy equipment, including armoured Humvees and artillery, was abandoned.

Some 500 soldiers and civilians have been killed in fighting in Ramadi over the past few days as Isis closed in on the remaining government outposts, suicide bombers destroying fortifications by ramming them with vehicles packed with explosives.

Almost all the 600,000 people who once lived in Ramadi have fled, though they have had difficulty getting past army and militia checkpoints in Baghdad where displaced Sunni are suspected of being Isis sympathisers. Omar, a journalist from Ramadi, told The Independent that Isis fighters regard the majority of people in Ramadi as hostile to them and were telling them: “Get out! We don’t need you!”

He blamed the fall of his city on the failure of Baghdad to send military aid. “For a year-and-a-half we have been calling for help from Baghdad,” he said.

The fall of Ramadi may turn out to be a decisive event, changing the political and military landscape of Iraq and Syria. In some respects, it is a worst defeat for the Iraqi government than the capture of the northern Iraqi city of Mosul in a surprise Isis attack last year.

The Isis pressure on Ramadi has been ongoing since April and a further assault was fully expected. Moreover, the garrison of the city consisted of some of the best troops in the Iraqi army and they were supported by US air strikes.

US generals have been downplaying the extent of the calamity, but the US policy of rebuilding the Iraqi army and aiding it with US air power is in ruins.

Iraqi fighters of the Shiite militia Asaib Ahl al-Haq (The League of the Righteous) stand guard outside their headquarters on May 18, 2015 in the Iraqi mainly Shiite southern city of Basra, as Shiite militias converged on Ramadi in a bid to recapture it from jihadists who dealt the Iraqi government a stinging blow by overrunning the city in a deadly three-day blitz.
Iraqi fighters of the Shiite militia Asaib Ahl al-Haq (The League of the Righteous) stand guard outside their headquarters on May 18, 2015 in the Iraqi mainly Shiite southern city of Basra, as Shiite militias converged on Ramadi in a bid to recapture it from jihadists who dealt the Iraqi government a stinging blow by overrunning the city in a deadly three-day blitz. "When it comes to readiness, we have more than 3,000 fighters waiting for a signal from the secretary general (of Asaib) Sheikh Qais al-Khazali," spokesman Jawad al-Talabawi said. AFP/Getty Images
Iraqi Defence Minister Khaled al-Obeidi (L) and his Iranian counterpart Hossein Dehghan (R) attend a meeting at the defence ministry in Baghdad on May 18, 2015. Dehghan arrived in the Iraqi capital for talks with his counterpart, a day after the Iraqi government suffered one of its worst losses with the fall of Ramadi, some 120 kilometres west of Baghdad, to Islamic State (IS) group jihadists. AFP PHOTO / STR-/AFP/Getty Images
An image grab taken from a video uploaded on May 18, 2015 by Aamaq News Agency, a Youtube channel which posts videos from areas under the Islamic State (IS) group's control, allegedly shows an IS fighter hanging a flag of the group in a street of Ramadi, the Iraqi capital of Anbar province, a day after the city was captured by IS. The fall of Ramadi has scuppered Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi's efforts to build a credible cross-sectarian force to fight the Islamic State group, analysts said. AFP PHOTO / HO / AAMAQ NEWS AGENCY = RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE - NO MARKETING NO ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS - DISTRIBUTED AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS FROM ALTERNATIVE SOURCES, AFP IS NOT RESPONSIBLE FOR ANY DIGITAL ALTERATIONS TO THE PICTURE'S EDITORIAL CONTENT, DATE AND LOCATION WHICH CANNOT BE INDEPENDENTLY VERIFIED ==-/AFP/Getty Images
An image grab taken from a video uploaded on May 18, 2015 by Aamaq News Agency, a Youtube channel which posts videos from areas under the Islamic State (IS) group's control, allegedly shows IS fighters in a street of Ramadi, the Iraqi capital of Anbar province, a day after it was captured by IS. The fall of Ramadi has scuppered Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi's efforts to build a credible cross-sectarian force to fight the Islamic State group, analysts said. AFP PHOTO / HO / AAMAQ NEWS AGENCY = RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE - NO MARKETING NO ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS - DISTRIBUTED AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS FROM ALTERNATIVE SOURCES, AFP IS NOT RESPONSIBLE FOR ANY DIGITAL ALTERATIONS TO THE PICTURE'S EDITORIAL CONTENT, DATE AND LOCATION WHICH CANNOT BE INDEPENDENTLY VERIFIED ==-/AFP/Getty Images
An Iraqi boy, whose family fled the city of Ramadi after it was seized by Islamic State (IS) group militants, poses inside a tent at a camp housing displaced families on May 18, 2015 in Bzeibez, on the southwestern frontier of Baghdad with Anbar province. Shiite militias converged on Ramadi in a bid to recapture it from jihadists who dealt the Iraqi government a stinging blow by overrunning the city in a deadly three-day blitz. AFP PHOTO / AHMAD AL-RUBAYEAHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP/Getty Images
An Iraqi boy, whose family fled the city of Ramadi after it was seized by Islamic State (IS) group militants, carries a jerrycan of water at a camp housing displaced families on May 18, 2015 in Bzeibez, on the southwestern frontier of Baghdad with Anbar province. Shiite militias converged on Ramadi in a bid to recapture it from jihadists who dealt the Iraqi government a stinging blow by overrunning the city in a deadly three-day blitz. AFP PHOTO / AHMAD AL-RUBAYEAHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP/Getty Images
An Iraqi girl, whose family fled the city of Ramadi after it was seized by Islamic State (IS) group militants, looks on outside a tent at a camp housing displaced families on May 18, 2015 in Bzeibez, on the southwestern frontier of Baghdad with Anbar province. Shiite militias converged on Ramadi in a bid to recapture it from jihadists who dealt the Iraqi government a stinging blow by overrunning the city in a deadly three-day blitz. AFP PHOTO / AHMAD AL-RUBAYEAHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP/Getty Images
Iraqi children, whose families fled the city of Ramadi after it was seized by Islamic State (IS) group militants, flash the sign of vitory at a camp housing displaced families on May 18, 2015 in Bzeibez, on the southwestern frontier of Baghdad with Anbar province. Shiite militias converged on Ramadi in a bid to recapture it from jihadists who dealt the Iraqi government a stinging blow by overrunning the city in a deadly three-day blitz. AFP PHOTO / AHMAD AL-RUBAYEAHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP/Getty Images
An Iraqi family, who fled the city of Ramadi after it was seized by Islamic State (IS) group militants, poses inside a tent at a camp housing displaced families on May 18, 2015 in Bzeibez, on the southwestern frontier of Baghdad with Anbar province. Shiite militias converged on Ramadi in a bid to recapture it from jihadists who dealt the Iraqi government a stinging blow by overrunning the city in a deadly three-day blitz. AFP PHOTO / AHMAD AL-RUBAYEAHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP/Getty Images
An Iraqi family, who fled the city of Ramadi after it was seized by Islamic State (IS) group militants, gathers inside a tent at a camp housing displaced families on May 18, 2015 in Bzeibez, on the southwestern frontier of Baghdad with Anbar province. Shiite militias converged on Ramadi in a bid to recapture it from jihadists who dealt the Iraqi government a stinging blow by overrunning the city in a deadly three-day blitz. AFP PHOTO / AHMAD AL-RUBAYEAHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP/Getty Images
Iraqi families, who fled the city of Ramadi after it was seized by Islamic State (IS) group militants, talk to journalists at a camp housing displaced families on May 18, 2015 in Bzeibez, on the southwestern frontier of Baghdad with Anbar province. Shiite militias converged on Ramadi in a bid to recapture it from jihadists who dealt the Iraqi government a stinging blow by overrunning the city in a deadly three-day blitz. AFP PHOTO / AHMAD AL-RUBAYEAHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP/Getty Images
Iraqi children, who fled with their families the city of Ramadi after it was seized by Islamic State (IS) group militants, gather outside tents at a camp housing displaced families on May 18, 2015 in Bzeibez, on the southwestern frontier of Baghdad with Anbar province. Shiite militias converged on Ramadi in a bid to recapture it from jihadists who dealt the Iraqi government a stinging blow by overrunning the city in a deadly three-day blitz. AFP PHOTO / AHMAD AL-RUBAYEAHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP/Getty Images
Iraqi children, who fled with their families the city of Ramadi after it was seized by Islamic State (IS) group militants, gather outside tents at a camp housing displaced families on May 18, 2015 in Bzeibez, on the southwestern frontier of Baghdad with Anbar province. Shiite militias converged on Ramadi in a bid to recapture it from jihadists who dealt the Iraqi government a stinging blow by overrunning the city in a deadly three-day blitz. AFP PHOTO / AHMAD AL-RUBAYEAHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP/Getty Images
Iraqi fighters of the Shiite militia Asaib Ahl al-Haq (The League of the Righteous) stand guard outside their headquarters on May 18, 2015 in the Iraqi mainly Shiite southern city of Basra, as Shiite militias converged on Ramadi in a bid to recapture it from jihadists who dealt the Iraqi government a stinging blow by overrunning the city in a deadly three-day blitz. "When it comes to readiness, we have more than 3,000 fighters waiting for a signal from the secretary general (of Asaib) Sheikh Qais al-Khazali," spokesman Jawad al-Talabawi said. AFP PHOTO / HAIDAR MOHAMMED ALIHAIDAR MOHAMMED ALI/AFP/Getty Images
Iraqi fighters of the Shiite militia Asaib Ahl al-Haq (The League of the Righteous) stand guard outside their headquarters on May 18, 2015 in the Iraqi mainly Shiite southern city of Basra, as Shiite militias converged on Ramadi in a bid to recapture it from jihadists who dealt the Iraqi government a stinging blow by overrunning the city in a deadly three-day blitz. "When it comes to readiness, we have more than 3,000 fighters waiting for a signal from the secretary general (of Asaib) Sheikh Qais al-Khazali," spokesman Jawad al-Talabawi said. AFP PHOTO / HAIDAR MOHAMMED ALIHAIDAR MOHAMMED ALI/AFP/Getty Images
Iraqi fighters of the Shiite militia Asaib Ahl al-Haq (The League of the Righteous) stand guard outside their headquarters on May 18, 2015 in the Iraqi mainly Shiite southern city of Basra, as Shiite militias converged on Ramadi in a bid to recapture it from jihadists who dealt the Iraqi government a stinging blow by overrunning the city in a deadly three-day blitz. "When it comes to readiness, we have more than 3,000 fighters waiting for a signal from the secretary general (of Asaib) Sheikh Qais al-Khazali," spokesman Jawad al-Talabawi said. AFP PHOTO / HAIDAR MOHAMMED ALIHAIDAR MOHAMMED ALI/AFP/Getty Images
Residents from the city of Ramadi, who fled their homes on May 16, 2015 as Islamic State (IS) group militants tightened their siege on the last government positions in the capital of Anbar province, a day after they seized the city's government headquarters, wait to cross Bzeibez bridge, on the southwestern frontier of Baghdad with Anbar province, after IS group jihadists took control of all the other routes connecting the province with the Iraqi capital. Taking control of Ramadi would constitute the group's most important victory this year in Iraq, and would give the jihadists control of the capitals of two of its largest provinces. AFP PHOTO / SABAH ARARSABAH ARAR/AFP/Getty Images
Residents from the city of Ramadi, who fled their homes on May 16, 2015 as Islamic State (IS) group militants tightened their siege on the last government positions in the capital of Anbar province, a day after they seized the city's government headquarters, wait to cross Bzeibez bridge, on the southwestern frontier of Baghdad with Anbar province, after IS group jihadists took control of all the other routes connecting the province with the Iraqi capital. Taking control of Ramadi would constitute the group's most important victory this year in Iraq, and would give the jihadists control of the capitals of two of its largest provinces. AFP PHOTO / SABAH ARARSABAH ARAR/AFP/Getty Images
Residents from the city of Ramadi, who fled their homes on May 16, 2015 as Islamic State (IS) group militants tightened their siege on the last government positions in the capital of Anbar province, a day after they seized the city's government headquarters, walk towards Bzeibez bridge on the southwestern frontier of Baghdad with Anbar province, after IS group jihadists took control of all the other routes connecting the province with the Iraqi capital. Taking control of Ramadi would constitute the group's most important victory this year in Iraq, and would give the jihadists control of the capitals of two of its largest provinces. AFP PHOTO / SABAH ARARSABAH ARAR/AFP/Getty Images
A resident from the city of Ramadi, who fled his home on May 16, 2015 as Islamic State (IS) group militants tightened their siege on the last government positions in the capital of Anbar province, a day after they seized the city's government headquarters, crosses Bzeibez bridge on the southwestern frontier of Baghdad with Anbar province, after IS group jihadists took control of all the other routes connecting the province with the Iraqi capital. Taking control of Ramadi would constitute the group's most important victory this year in Iraq, and would give the jihadists control of the capitals of two of its largest provinces. AFP PHOTO / SABAH ARARSABAH ARAR/AFP/Getty Images
Residents from the city of Ramadi, who fled their homes on May 16, 2015 as Islamic State (IS) group militants tightened their siege on the last government positions in the capital of Anbar province, a day after they seized the city's government headquarters, walk towards Bzeibez bridge on the southwestern frontier of Baghdad with Anbar province, after IS group jihadists took control of all the other routes connecting the province with the Iraqi capital. Taking control of Ramadi would constitute the group's most important victory this year in Iraq, and would give the jihadists control of the capitals of two of its largest provinces. AFP PHOTO / SABAH ARARSABAH ARAR/AFP/Getty Images
Residents from the city of Ramadi, who fled their homes on May 16, 2015 as Islamic State (IS) group militants tightened their siege on the last government positions in the capital of Anbar province, a day after they seized the city's government headquarters, walk towards Bzeibez bridge on the southwestern frontier of Baghdad with Anbar province, after IS group jihadists took control of all the other routes connecting the province with the Iraqi capital. Taking control of Ramadi would constitute the group's most important victory this year in Iraq, and would give the jihadists control of the capitals of two of its largest provinces. AFP PHOTO / SABAH ARARSABAH ARAR/AFP/Getty Images
Iraqi security forces stand guard as residents from the city of Ramadi, who fled their homes on May 16, 2015 as Islamic State (IS) group militants tightened their siege on the last government positions in the capital of Anbar province, a day after they seized the city's government headquarters, wait to cross Bzeibez bridge, on the southwestern frontier of Baghdad with Anbar province, after IS group jihadists took control of all the other routes connecting the province with the Iraqi capital. Taking control of Ramadi would constitute the group's most important victory this year in Iraq, and would give the jihadists control of the capitals of two of its largest provinces. AFP PHOTO / SABAH ARARSABAH ARAR/AFP/Getty Images
Iraq security forces withdraw from Ramadi, the capital of Iraq's Anbar province, 115 kilometers (70 miles) west of Baghdad, Sunday, May 17, 2015. Suicide car bomb attacks killed over 10 members of Iraqi security forces Sunday in Ramadi, which now is largely held by the Islamic State group, authorities said. Last week, the militants swept through Ramadi, seizing the main government headquarters and other key parts of the city. It marked a major setback for the Iraqi government's efforts to drive the militants out of areas they seized last year. (AP Photo)

The Baghdad government now has little choice but to deploy the Hashd Shaabi, the Shia paramilitaries which the US sees as being under Iranian influence and has not wanted to see in the frontline fighting in Sunni areas like Ramadi, the capital of the giant Anbar province.

The latest victory of Isis, which had been portrayed inside and outside Iraq as having lost momentum since a run of victories between June and October last year, will strengthen its appeal to Sunni people as a winner.

It is already causing dismay among the opponents of the Sunni jihadists who had hoped that the military situation had stabilised and Isis was on the retreat.

Isis lost Tikrit, the home town of Saddam Hussein, earlier this year and failed to take the Syrian Kurdish town of Kobani in a 134-day siege despite suffering heavy losses.

Fuad Hussein, chief of staff to President Massoud Barzani, the Kurdish leader, said he was concerned at what the fall of Ramadi meant for the Kurdish region and the rest of Iraq. He was particularly worried that Isis would follow up its latest victory by attacks on the vast Iraqi army base at al-Assad, which is full of weapons, as well as the Haditha Dam that controls the water level of the Euphrates.

Isis has been fighting for Ramadi since early 2014 when it took over much of Anbar province, including the city of Fallujah. Five Iraqi army divisions were unable regain the province, but government forces still held on to the central administrative complex in Ramadi. After a carefully planned assault that began on Thursday, the last pockets of government resistance were eliminated on Sunday with an attack on the Malaab district of south Ramadi.

Iraqi children, whose families fled the city of Ramadi after it was seized by Islamic State (IS) group militants, flash the sign of vitory at a camp housing displaced families on May 18, 2015 in Bzeibez, on the southwestern frontier of Baghdad with Anbar province. AFP/Getty Images
Iraqi children, whose families fled the city of Ramadi after it was seized by Islamic State (IS) group militants, flash the sign of vitory at a camp housing displaced families on May 18, 2015 in Bzeibez, on the southwestern frontier of Baghdad with Anbar province. AFP/Getty Images

Four suicide bombers killed at least 10 police and wounded 15, including Colonel Muthana al-Jabri, the chief of the Malaab police station. Later in the day, three suicide bombers drove cars packed with explosives into the gate of the Anbar Operation Command, the military headquarters for Anbar province, killing a further five soldiers and wounding 12.

A police officer who was stationed at the headquarters said retreating troops left behind about 30 army vehicles and weapons that included artillery and assault rifles. The best Iraqi military units such as the Golden Division and Swat forces number perhaps 5,000 men and have been rushed from crisis point to crisis point over the past year and are reported to be suffering from desertions.

Iran has offered to aid the Baghdad government in its hour of need. A senior Iranian official said his country would provide any help necessary.

The US has conducted 19 air strikes in the vicinity of Ramadi in the last 72 hours. But the most crucial development could be comments from Ali al-Sarai, a spokesman for the Shia militia, Hashid Shaabi.

He told Reuters in Baghdad that “the Hashid has received the order to march forward, they will definitely take part. They were waiting for this order and now they have it”. However, it is doubtful if the Hashid have the strength to recapture Ramadi.

Among senior Shia leaders in Baghdad there is a growing feeling that they have no choice but to look to Shia militias for their salvation, even if this angers the Americans and alienates the Sunnis.

One former minister said: “I think there is growing pressure to throw away the straitjacket that the US has imposed on the government’s relationship with the Hashid. It is pretty clear that they are the only fighting force that can confront Isis.”

The US has said that Iranian-backed militias will be denied air support and intelligence.

After a series of setbacks, success at Ramadi will be welcome to Isis because it has portrayed its victories as proof of divine support.

Iraq security forces withdraw from Ramadi, the capital of Iraq's Anbar province, 115 kilometers (70 miles) west of Baghdad, Sunday, May 17, 2015. (AP Photo)
Iraq security forces withdraw from Ramadi, the capital of Iraq's Anbar province, 115 kilometers (70 miles) west of Baghdad, Sunday, May 17, 2015. (AP Photo)

It is in triumphant mood, saying that in Ramadi it has seized tanks and killed “dozens of apostates”, while other police and soldiers are being urged via loudspeaker to throw away their weapons if they want to be shown mercy.

The defeat at Ramadi is likely to prove an important staging post in the break-up of Iraq because the Shia majority may decide they are getting very little from the Kurds or the anti-Isis Sunni politicians.

The former minister said that there is a perception among Shia at all levels that the Kurds should go their own way, but in that case should leave the central government.

The Sunni leaders should “stand up and be counted” as active supporters of the government or be seen as covert enemies and supporters of Isis. Many Shia feel that the Sunni in the government have been having it both ways as theoretical opponents of Isis, but without giving real backing to the government and hampering its efforts to defend itself.

Three key battles in the war with Isis

Mosul

Isis seized Iraq’s second city, Mosul, in  June last year. The city of 1.4 million people, garrisoned by a large Iraqi security force,  was captured with as few as 1,300  jihadists. A joint Iraqi-Kurdish military force of up to 25,000 fighters was reportedly being prepared to retake the Iraqi city this month before the defeat at Ramadi.

Kobani

Kurdish fighters drove Isis militants out of Kobani, in Syria near Turkey’s border, in January, ending a four-month fight for the town. Kobani was seen as a major test of the US-led coalition’s strategy to combat Isis in Syria with air strikes. The fighting forced thousands to flee across the border.

Tikrit

In late March, aided by Shia militia and US air strikes, Iraqi security forces retook Saddam Hussein’s hometown of Tikrit after it fell to Isis last year. Tikrit, 90 miles north of Baghdad, was captured by Isis in June as they swept south from Mosul.

Life under Isis

Everyday reality of living in the 'Caliphate'

Story of a former jihadi - why I deserted

How militants overthrew Hit in under 24 hours

Sunnis in Iraq face an even bleaker future if the militants' reign of terror is finally defeated

As long as its enemies remain divided the militant group will not be defeated

Further reading

CIA, MI6 and Turkey's rogue game in Syria: New claims say Ankara worked with the US and Britain to smuggle Gaddafi's weapons to jihadi fighters

White House version of Osama Bin Laden killing a lie, says writer

9/11: Iranian general accuses US of organising September 11 terror attacks 'to justify invasion of Middle East'

ISIS propaganda photo of a newborn baby sleeping beside gun, hand grenade and birth certificate

Isis militants embrace 'gay' men before 'stoning them to death in public' in Syria

FBI accused of 'covering up Saudi Arabian links to 9/11'

Isis accused of beheading captives in Palestinian refugee camp Yarmouk

Isis has built a global brand using celebrity and social media

John Pilger: Why the rise of fascism is again the issue

There's nothing 'Islamic' about Isis: The Koran, whose message Isis butcher at every turn, instructs Muslims to protect the religious freedoms of others

Robert Fisk: Isis? Islamic State? Daesh? Who exactly is the greatest threat to civilisation?

Forget Isis ... explosion of violence across the Middle East down to West's desire to weaken Arab armies, says Syrian adviser

Isis in Syria: A general reveals the lack of communication with the US - and his country's awkward relationship with their allies-by-default

Syrian army leaders 'slaughtered' as Isis and Nusra Front militants storm Idlib

Turkey accused of colluding with Isis to oppose Syrian Kurds and Assad following surprise release of 49 hostages

Fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows across the Middle East

Isis campaign: Bingo! Here’s another force of evil to be ‘vanquished’

Islamic State: Saudi Arabia's oil wells are the ultimate goal for Isis

How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over the north of Iraq

Iraq crisis: Sunni caliphate has been bankrolled by Saudi Arabia

War with Isis: If Saudi Arabia isn't fuelling the militant inferno, who is?

Independent News Service

Read More

From Belfast Telegraph