Thursday, May 21, 2015

Why Did Iraq’s Ramadi Fall To The Islamic State?

The fall of Ramadi in Iraq’s Anbar province sent shockwaves through the country and the west. The fact that a large government force fell to a smaller attacking one of the Islamic State (IS) recalled memories of Mosul being seized in June 2014. Talk of sleeper cells and infiltrators amongst the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) made it seem like there were traitors in the midst. The real cause of IS being able to take the city however was the degraded forces that were protecting it, and the tactics used by the insurgents.

May 17, 2015 Anbar’s provincial capital of Ramadi fell to the Islamic State. The militants used deception, earth moving equipment, and huge explosives to break the city’s defense, plus set up blocking forces around the perimeter to stop relief from arriving. On the first day of the attack on May 14, IS approached the government center wearing Iraqi Security Forces uniforms. This allowed them to get close enough to take the guards by surprise. IS then brought up armored bulldozers to take down the protective barriers, allowing eight suicide car bombs to attack the facility. Mortar fire and an infantry attack into the breach created by the explosions were able to take the center by the next day. Most of the soldiers then retreated from this position to the Anbar Operations Command center to the northwest leaving the police and tribal fighters to face the militants on their own. The latter two were the least armed and were eventually overrun. Three more suicide car bombs then were used to attack the Anbar Operations facility. The following day another car bomb was used to destroy the Tamim Bridge that crossed the Euphrates River that divides the city. Finally, four suicide car bombs were used against government forces in Malab and another three in the final assault upon the Anbar Operations Command, which led to its capture by the insurgents, and the ISF to begin to flee the city. According to a State Department official, a total of 30 suicide vehicle borne improvised explosive devices (VBIEDs) were used to take Ramadi. Ten were armored dump trucks, each of which were said to pack the same amount of explosives as used in the Oklahoma City bombing of 1995. These VBIEDs were so big they flattened entire blocks. The ISF had no weapons on hand that could penetrate the armor of these vehicles. Second, IS employed sleeper cells within the city. This was used in recent attacks in other cities in Anbar. The Islamic State was able to place these fighters within the city because they’d been fighting for control of it since December 2013 giving it plenty of time to embed its forces in sensitive areas before offensives. Finally, a defensive ring was set up around Ramadi to block any relief effort. On May 15, Baghdad dispatched three units to help relieve the city. These never made it however as they were attacked by IS before even reaching Ramadi, and turned back. The car bombs were able to overcome the defenses of the major ISF centers within Ramadi, and helped break the morale. The sleeper cells were also able to collect intelligence, and launch surprise attacks upon targeted areas. IS also predicted the routes outside government forces would take to try to get into the city. It successfully blocked them sealing the fate of the defenders.

The last major factor contributing to the taking of Ramadi was the depleted state of the government forces. The same units had been deployed to the city for a year without leave. Only a Federal Police Brigade and 1,000 sahwa supplemented these forces since the summer of 2014. Many of the soldiers in Ramadi had not been paid for six months. Units were also not receiving parts to repair their vehicles leaving many out of commission in the months of fighting. Despite all this the forces within the city were able to hold out for the last seventeen months against repeated IS assaults. They paid a heavy toll, and were slowly losing control of the city’s districts. According to the State Department official IS had approximately half of Ramadi under its sway for a year and gained more ground in April. This was not a sudden collapse then, but rather the result of a year plus campaign to capture the provincial capital. This had broken down the defending forces and steadily gained control of most of the city before finally taking the urban core.

The fall of Ramadi was a long time coming. The Islamic State had been trying to take the city since the end of 2013. It had steadily gained ground in the city giving it close proximity to the remaining outposts of the government forces. Using huge truck bombs it was able to break its way into these complexes and eventually rout the defenders. They on the other hand had been holding out for months with little help from the Anbar Operations Command or Baghdad. The fact that most of the city’s inhabitants fled in the fighting over the past several months showed that it was not IS sympathizers that stabbed the government in the back either. Rather it was result of a war of attrition that finally succeeded.


AIN, "Car bomb explodes on Al-Tameem bridge, western Ramadi," 5/16/15

Associated Press, "Amid battles with ISIS, suicide attacks kill 10 people in Iraq," 5/15/15

BBC, "Islamic State crisis: Militants seize Ramadi stronghold," 5/15/15

Knights, Michael, “Retaking Ramadi: U.S. Assistance and Shiite-Sunni Cooperation,” Washington Institute for Near East Policy, 5/19/15

Al Made, “The arrival of three combat battalions to regain the control of the Ramadi area from the grip of Dash,” 5/15/15

Neely, Bill, “Analysis: ‘Ghost Soldiers,’ Ineffective Strikes Allow ISIS to Seize Ramadi,” NBC, 5/20/15

Prather, Mitchel, “Islamic State consolidates grip on Ramadi: executions reported,” McClatchy Newspapers, 5/16/15

Reggie, Bill and Weiss, Caleb, "Islamic State seizes government center in Ramadi," Long War Journal, 5/15/15

U.S. Department of State, “Background Briefing on Iraq,” 5/20/15

Xinhua, “IS militants capture government compound in Iraq’s Ramadi,” 5/15/15


Dan Greene said...

Good laydown, but would be useful if it had been accompanied by a map that that depicted the referenced geographical locations.

A few questions:

1. No air support to defensive effort of any kind? Has the US decided not to support the effort?

2. What happened to the Iranians. They seemed to bow out when the PM brought in US air support at Tikrit. Are they on strike?

3. What is the fundamental problem with the ISF? I'm not entirely clear. Were the army units mixed Shia/Sunni? Is there a fundamental lack of cohesiveness due to the attempt to created unified Shia-Sunni-Kurd units?

4. I am starting to wonder about the fundamental quality of Shia soldiers. Given that the Sunnis have been the rulers of Iraq and the Shia come disproportionately from peasant stock, I wonder whether there is not a sort of medieval peasant uprising aspect to the Shia-Sunni confrontation. In medieval jacqeries, the peasants could rise up and have temporary success, but they lacked basic training, resources and perhaps instinct for sustained military operations. Have the Shia, by their political ascendency on the back of the US invasion, been collectively propelled beyond their level of competence?

Joel Wing said...

Hi Dan,

Thanks for the comment. Here are a few responses.

1. There were air strikes all during the fighting for Ramadi and afterward. Didn't prove enough to turn back the attackers.

2. Iranians are still in Iraq but deployed with the Hashd forces who were not in the Ramadi area.

3. Problems with the ISF are many. Corruption, back logistics, bad leaders. Nothing to do with sectarianism. Needs to be rebuilt which is a long term process that U.S. is focusing on.

amagi said...

Joel --

I read reports of a sandstorm that gave ISIS cover against aircraft while moving their heavy equipment into the city. Any truth to that?

Joel Wing said...

Hi Amagi

Good to hear from you! Yes IS attacked at night during poor weather to try to avert Coalition air strikes. Those air attacks didn't really start until next day and didn't prove enough to turn the situation.

IS has used similar tactics in attacking peshmerga in north before.

Kagekatsu said...

Obama's strategy is coming under a lof flak with regards to how the key lynchpin, rebuilding the ISF through support by logistics and air support, has completely fallen apart as a result of the fall of Ramadi. From the look of things, ISIS is very much winning the war and combined with their progress in Syria, looks to actually be succeeding in the long-term of establishing their caliphate despite Coalition pressure. It certainly seems that the ISF are still years away from being ready to push ISIS out of its territory, which gives them more time to consolidate among the Sunni community. And despite all this, Obama has ruled out any overhaul of his strategy despite numerous non-partisan experts stating that adjustments and changes are needed if they hope to succeed in "degrading and destroying" ISIS' protostate.

Faced with all this, do you still believe they will fall in the long-term, or is the world going to have to get used to a new state arising in the Middle East?

Joel Wing said...

I think in the long term IS can be pushed out of all the urban centers that it holds. It doesn't have the manpower to defend these areas and has fallen to direct results every time. That being said being dislodged from urban areas does not mean the group will be defeated and can live on as a very deadly insurgency. Overcoming that will take a lot more than military operations.

Kagekatsu said...

Thank you for replying.

If I can ask one more question, even though Obama has ruled out overhauling the U.S.'s approach to the situation, such as using special forces for JTAC operations, do you still foresee the Coalition making marked adjustments to the overall strategy?

Joel Wing said...

Doesn't appear like the administration is going to change right now. The U.S. and others could be doing so much more just in terms of air power and training, but there doesn't appear to be much urgency.

Dan Greene said...


Thanks for the answer, but I must say that "corruption" and "bad leadership" just don't fully explain what's going on, as far as I am concerned. What explains the "bad leadership?" There is corruption in Syria too, but the Syrian government is able to put up a real fight (though that is not to say what the eventual outcome will be.)

The Sunni-Shia dynamic is at the heart of the matter, I think. Maliki chose leaders he thought would be politically reliable, because he rightly feared both Sunni revanchism (and not just IS) and the desire of the US to exert controlling influence on the Iraqi state. You can call this "corruption" but it's much more complex than that. His trade-off of military competence for political reliability may have been a significant contributing factor to the poor leadership climate, but simply saying "poor leadership" doesn't provide a full explanation.

Questioning the fighting quality of the Shia is not really about "sectarianism." It's about religious affiliation transformed over time into what is in effect an ethnicity. This is what happened historically with Judaism. If the Shia are associated disproportionately with a peasant background and psychological profile (cautious, fearful, uncreative, used to rote and repetitive activity) then they are not likely to do well in dynamic modern combat, especially in leadership positions.

Admittedly this is all speculative, but I don't think the comfortable, conventional explanations for Iraqi (Shia) military failure (absent US and/or Iranian back-up) pass muster.

Maybe, as I said, the dysfunctional construct of mixed Sunni-Shia-Kurd units in which, given the environment, there is little cohesion and trust, is a bigger problem.

But "corruption" and "bad leadership" (of which "bad logistics" is basically only an extension) just seem inadequate in identifying the true source of Iraqi military deficiency.

Thanks again.

Joel Wing said...


Since the Shiite are the majority of Iraq they have been the majority in the Iraqi army for decades. Most of the soldiers that fought in the Iran-Iraq War, Gulf War, 2003 invasion, etc. Shiite. The militias which beat the insurgency in Baghdad during the 2005-08 civil war Shiite. There are plenty of Iraqi Shiite militias successfully fighting in Syria to prop up Assad as well. I don't think your argument is legitimate at all.

If the Shiites are such a bad fighting force because of their history why were they able to overturn the population of Baghdad the largest city in the country in 3 years of fighting?

Joel Wing said...


Here's further flaws with your thinking. Your idea that the Shiites were mostly peasants and the Sunnis the urban rulers does not stand up to Iraqi history. All Iraqis went through urbanization during the same period starting in the early 1900s and accelerating in the 1940s-60s. Iraq's two largest cities Basra and Baghdad have Shiite majorities. Kurdistan in fact was the most rural area of the country and yet the Peshmerga were known as great fighters constantly rising up against the Iraqi state for decades. That peasant background didn't seem to undermine their fighting abilities. Likewise Anbar where the Iraqi insurgency started was not know for its cities but rather its tribal structures which were empowered by Saddam in the 1990s.

Anonymous said...

Given all the captured weapons I have seen including tanks and shells I find it difficult to understand the statement"The ISF had no weapons on hand that could penetrate the armor of these vehicles". I would be surprised to see a truck however armoured that could withstand a couple of hits from a simple RPG

Joel Wing said...

Simple answer all that heavier equipment was probably at the 8th brigade base and not requisitioned to those at checkpoints which were what got hit by all the VBIEDs.

Joel Wing said...

Article in Al Mada today had officials say there was tons of military equipment at army bases in Ramadi but they were not distributed to soldiers or tribal fighters.

Dan Greene said...


Thanks for the follow-up. I find some of the information from this article in today's Washington Post interesting:

“'There were only weak, shy airstrikes on the edges of the city,' said Sabah Karhout, the head of Anbar’s provincial council."

Of course, it's easy to blame lack of American air support, which was clearly not the principal weakness of the defensive effort. Still, would like to get a better sense of just how robust--or not--the US support effort was. I see that Ash Carter has moved to preempt any attempt to blame lack of US air support by publicly excoriating Iraq's "lack of will."

"The battle also highlighted the animosity and lack of trust between the army and the local police.
Police complained that soldiers at checkpoints confiscated their weapons in the confusion, saying they weren’t allowed to retreat from the city with them, even though officers said they were moving from one neighborhood to another. 'There is so much distrust,' said Dahl. 'They consider anyone from Ramadi as a sympathizer with ISIS. And then in many of their operations, Daesh dress in military clothes, so we don’t trust people we see in army uniform.'”

Here, we see the Sunni-Shia effect clearly. The local police are obviously Sunni in the main. The military and Federal Police units were mixed or perhaps Shia majority, I would guess. No trust at all, apparently. This is one reason the Shia militias are successful. They know who they are and have a cohesion that the army lacks. At this point, they almost need to re-organize the army along militia lines.

Abadi falls back on the same old ineffective response to military disaster of an "investigation." He does not actively alienate the Sunnis. That's the best that can be said about his leadership. I wonder if Maliki is warming up in the bullpen yet?

Dan Greene said...

And in response to some of your points:

1. You note that most of the soldiers in the Iraqi army have historically be Shia. That's true, but we should also note that the performance of those soldiers in the wars you cite has been consistently abysmal. Is this just more of a pattern?

2. Yes, the Shia militia are the cream of Shia forces skimmed from the general Shia population. And they are in an apparently much more motivating environment than the army. But this does not in itself invalidate my Shia hypothesis.

But even if my Shia hypothesis is wrong, and it may well be, you still have not produced a good explanation for Iraqi failure. It's true that there are Shia militia--Iraqi and Lebanese--doing good service in Syria. It's also true that just as the Shia form the majority of soldiers in the Iraqi Army, the Sunnis form the majority of soldiers in the Syrian army. And the Syrian army, with much less support, has been doing a much better job, on the whole, given its resources, than the Iraqi.

How do we explain this reality?

You asked: "If the Shiites are such a bad fighting force because of their history why were they able to overturn the population of Baghdad the largest city in the country in 3 years of fighting?"

First, because they had a lot of US back-up. Second, a lot of this was really ethnic cleansing of civilians and didn't require first-class fighting competence. Third, much of it was accomplished by the militias who I am hypothesizing are the motivated and capable "elite" of Shia combatants.

As far as the peasant question goes, The Sunnis disproportionately held leadership roles in the military and government. So, OK, perhaps peasant origin does not differentiate between the Shia and Sunnis and I need to concede on on that point. Still, we know for a fact that military leadership was disproportionately Sunni. Maybe that is part of the incompetence problem we see now.

In any case though, we are still left with the question of the underlying causes of Shia-led Iraq's military failure, and I say again: Corruption and poor leadership may be proximate causes, but what explains their apparent prevalence in the Iraqi government vice the Syrian?

I am using these hypotheses to generate a search for meaningful explanations for Iraqi military failure and am not wedded to any of them. I just think we need to look beyond what I would almost call buzz word explanations to get at the real underlying issues.

Joel Wing said...

The 7th Division which was the main unit in Ramadi and Anbar is nationally recruited but was heavy on people from Anbar including the officer corps.

I did give you an explanation of why the ISF are so weak and you rejected it. It is an institutionally hollow force. Soldiers lack adequate training. The officer corps is corrupt. The former head of the Anbar Operations Command that got fired by Abadi was known for stealing the money and supplies he bought for his men. Many of the commanding officers were put in by Maliki as loyalists not based upon competence. Abadi has fired and transferred hundreds of officers to try to deal with this. ISF logistics are poor to non-existent. An example a 2011 audit by the U.S. Special Inspector General found that the officer in charge of maintenance at the Defense Ministry was not consulted when the Ministry bought parts. The result was that 80% of the spares on hand did not go with any equipment the military used. I can go on and on. These institutional problems are the root cause of the ISF's weaknesses more than any theory about Shiites having peasant origins.

Joel Wing said...

You wrote "Third, much of it was accomplished by the militias who I am hypothesizing are the motivated and capable "elite" of Shia combatants."

Most of the militiamen responsible for the ethnic cleansing of Baghdad were from the Mahdi Army and all the breakaway factions. They came from eastern Baghdad which is the poorest part of the country and was looked down upon for decades. This was also the place where all the Shiite peasants migrated to during urbanization. In all the neighborhoods of Baghdad they would be the closest to peasants that you're arguing about yet they defeated Al Qaeda in Iraq and other insurgent groups in the battle of Baghdad.