Over the weekend the Anbar provincial capital of Ramadi fell to the Islamic State (IS). The group had been gaining ground in the city for months, and was finally able to take the government center and then rout the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF). This was a major defeat for Prime Minister Haider Abadi who had talked about retaking the province just a few weeks ago after the victory in Tikrit. Now the Hashd al-Shaabi has been mobilized to try to retake the area. Abadi and the United States had tried to keep the Hashd out fearing they might create a backlash amongst the population, but the collapse in Ramadi forced a reversal. The Anbar provincial council okayed the Hashd’s entry, Abadi told them to get ready, and the U.S. Ambassador to Iraq gave his approval as well. In the political struggle surrounding the current war this was a victory for pro-Iranian elements of the Hashd who have become increasingly critical of the prime minister and America’s involvement. They can now claim that the government cannot win without them, that American advise should be rejected, and that ultimately Abadi should answer to them when it comes to security.
For the last several months the Islamic State had been trying to take central Ramadi, and finally succeeded. Starting on the night of May 14, IS fighters dressed in Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) uniforms and driving Humvees approached the government center to lull the guards into a false sense of security before using ten suicide car bombs and armored bulldozers to breach the defenses. By the next day there was an IS flag flying over part of the complex. Baghdad responded by sending three regiments to relieve the city, but they never arrived, going to the surrounding cities like Habaniya and Khalidya without ever entering Ramadi. May 17 IS launched its final assault upon the Anbar Operations Command with three suicide car bombs, and forced the ISF and several thousand refugees to flee west. During the taking of the city IS members were said to be roaming the streets looking for government workers and sahwa members to execute. In the first two days IS executed 500 police, sahwa and civilians. May 16 they killed another 20, and then 33 more the following day. This victory was the culmination of months of fighting by the IS, which slowly made its way from the southern part of Ramadi to the middle. Several times this year IS had made an attempt on the government center, but had been pushed back. This time they were finally able to break through, and took the city as a result.
The loss of Ramadi forced the prime minister and the Americans to reverse their position on the Hashd’s involvement in Anbar. Premier Abadi told the Hashd that they should be ready to intervene. The Anbar council also voted to authorize the Hashd to help retake Ramadi. Anbari officials and parliamentarians also consulted with the American Ambassador Stuart Jones who reportedly okayed the Hashd fighting in Anbar as long as they were under the authority of Abadi as commander in chief and the Anbar Operations Command. Previously the prime minister and the Americans had both been trying to keep the Hashd out of the governorate out of fear that they would cause popular resentment amongst locals. Now faced with the dire security situation they had to acknowledge that the Hashd were needed.
The war against the Islamic State has created deep fissures within the Shiite body politic in Iraq. Some elements of the Hashd such as the Badr Organization and its head Hadi Ameri and Qais Khazali of Asaib Ahl Al-Haq along with Vice President Nouri al-Maliki have become increasingly critical of the prime minister. They have criticized him for asking for U.S. help against the insurgency, and were recently pushing to supersede the ISF as being in charge of security. Anbar was the newest point of contention between the two sides as people like Ameri said that the Hashd should be allowed to fight there no matter what. That led to groups such as Kataib Hezbollah and others to deploy there back in March despite the prime minister’s objections. Now they can claim that not only should they have been sent there from the beginning, but also that only they can successfully fight IS as the government forces have failed.
The Islamic State, Iran and its friends within the Hashd have emerged as the major winners from this latest setback in Iraq at the prime minister’s expense. IS has been fighting for control of Ramadi since the beginning of 2014. Sixteen months later they finally succeeded and now control most of Anbar from the Syrian border to the center of the province. Those towns they don’t control in the west are now largely cut off from their supply lines. The pro-Iranian Hashd forces also came out victors as they made the prime minister and Americans give up on their opposition to their official presence in the province. This is their second major move since they planned the Tikrit operation on their own without including the government to assume control of security in the country. This follows Iran’s plans to impose its Syrian model upon Iraq. There Tehran did not trust Damascus’ forces to confront the rebels, so it created a number of militias and brought in its regional allies including Iraqi militias to take over much of the fighting on the ground, while gaining more control over operations at the command level. It is now attempting to do the same in Iraq using its Hashd allies many of which were involved in the Syrian conflict. Prime Minister Abadi is the obvious loser. He has been attempting to bring the Hashd under the government’s control, but has struggled to do so due to the opposition of leaders such as Ameri and Khazali. He now finds himself beholden to them once again. Baghdad’s neglect of Anbar has also come back to haunt it. For over a year Anbar officials have complained that the central authorities have not sent additional forces and enough equipment to fight against IS. Even before the fall of Mosul IS was in control of more than 50% of the province. There was too much division within the Shiite parties over whether or not to arm the tribes in Anbar out of fear that they were IS sympathizers or might use the weapons against Baghdad in the future, and poor logistics and corruption stifled the flow of what material was sent to the province. Now the ISF and tribes have suffered the largest defeat since the fall of Mosul. Ultimately, the country needs to overcome its internal divisions if it wants to effectively fight the insurgency and deal with foreign pressures from both the Washington and Tehran on how it should conduct the war. Post-03 Baghdad has been marked by its dissension and disagreement however, which will continue to cost it in the coming months as it struggles against the Islamic State.
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