Both the taking of Ramadi by the Islamic State and its recapture by the Iraqi forces were a long time coming. IS attacked the city for almost a year, while the operation to free it took five months. The aftermath of securing the area, re-establishing governance and services will take even longer. Despite these difficulties the liberation of Ramadi was a huge setback for the militants proving that they lack the resources to hold urban areas in Iraq, and a boost for the Iraqi government that was severely criticized for losing the city in the first place.
Both before and after the summer 2014 offensive, which saw the seizure of Mosul and Tikrit, the Islamic State remained focused upon Anbar and its capital Ramadi. The province was one of its major bases, and was the first place it seized territory when the insurgency was reborn. Its Sunni population and its tribes were also seen as an enticing base for the organization to build within. The final push that took Ramadi came in two waves. First, in mid-April IS started a new series of attacks, which led to the seizure of several neighborhoods. On April 16 a security source told the National Iraqi News Agency that 70% of the city was under IS control. The final assault came in mid-May. IS sent in reinforcements from Mosul and Salahaddin, and began with men dressed in military uniforms and driving Humvees to infiltrate the defenses, and then unleashed thirty suicide car bombs against the government complex in the downtown. The Iraqi Security Forces and allied tribes quickly crumbled, IS took the city, and immediately began executing people. This was a huge victory for IS. It solidified the group’s control over more than half of the governorate topped off by capturing the provincial capital. It also caused dissent amongst local tribes and undermined the government’s attempt to create a new Sahwa in Anbar. Ramadi was the birthplace of the Awakening and its loss was a sign that Baghdad could not protect its allies there. For example, several sheikhs accused the government of betraying them during the battle as they felt abandoned when the ISF pulled out of the city. Anbar’s tribes would only back the side that would stand by them to assure their self-preservation, and after Ramadi the government did not look like it could play that role.
There were also repercussions for Prime Minister Haider Abadi. First, he was talking about freeing all of Anbar after Tikrit was taken in March. Then Ramadi fell and his strategy looked like a failure. Second, even before Ramadi was lost the premier was coming under increasing pressure from Nouri al-Maliki and pro-Iranian Hashd groups such as Badr and Asaib Ahl Al-Haq (AAH). They complained they were being kept out of the Ramadi fight, and being constrained in Anbar overall even though they were already operating in places like Garma. Even though Abadi is commander and chief and the Hashd are supposed to be under his command Badr’s Hadi Ameri said they would fight in Anbar no matter what the premier said. Third, the Anbar provincial council undercut Abadi as well authorizing the Hashd to deploy to the governorate since it was shell shocked after the fall of Ramadi. Finally, members of the prime minister’s own Dawa Party and State of Law (SOL) list came out against him. One SOL parliamentarian said that IS’s victory in Ramadi proved that the United States was helping the insurgents, and that Iraq should turn towards Iran instead. A Dawa official claimed elements of the security forces and the tribes the Abadi was arming were working with IS. Abadi had been riding high just a few months beforehand when Iraqi forces retook Tikrit the first major city to be liberated from IS. Then he lost all of that prestige with Ramadi. Not only that it allowed his rivals like Maliki and Ameri to attack his governance, and his alliance with the Americans as everything was blamed on the two. That split continued as plans were made to retake the city.
The divide between Abadi and the pro-Iranian Hashd continued when the offensive to retake Ramadi began. Immediately after the city was taken the prime minister said there would be a swift response to liberate it. Ameri contradicted him by saying he had his own plan for Anbar, and that did not include going after Ramadi right away. Ameri’s strategy was quickly revealed to not include the city at all, but going for Fallujah instead. That meant the day the Ramadi offensive began the Hashd started their own one in Fallujah. Hashd leaders like Ameri were directly challenging Abadi’s leadership of not only security in Anbar, but the entire country. Ameri and others had already been calling for them to take over command of operations instead of the security forces. Now the fall of Ramadi gave them the opportunity to claim the premier had failed, and now they were going to bring victory to the province. Not only that, it split the forces that could have been arrayed against Ramadi. That hurt because the lack of manpower has been an on going dilemma for the Iraqi forces as they have not been able to hold many of the towns and suburbs that they cleared. In turn, the Hashd did not have the fighters to be successful in Fallujah either causing problems in both cities.
On the other hand, the United States stepped up its support to make sure that Ramadi would be retaken. U.S. advisers in Anbar helped plan the operation. The Americans trained the army units fighting for the city, and a new force of tribal fighters. Washington also wanted to keep the Hashd out of Ramadi to make sure that it was an Iraqi Security Forces’ (ISF) victory. That eventually happened as Hashd units left bases where U.S. advisers were working, and then a mass exodus occurred by October under pressure from Baghdad. An Iraq Oil Report article claimed there was an agreement between the Abadi government, the U.S. and the Hashd to withdraw from the operation. The Americans got their tribal fighters into the Hashd so that they could get paid. Finally, the U.S. fired artillery from bases they were stationed at and carried out air strikes to support the ISF’s advances. The Americans were determined that Ramadi would be liberated. They also wanted to make sure that it would help PM Abadi after all of the criticism he received for losing the city. That meant building up ISF and Sunni Hashd units to capture Ramadi, and pushing the Shiite Hashd out that were trying to undermine the premier. While much of this happened behind the scenes by the end of the battle the Iraqi papers were full of stories of U.S. special forces and helicopters taking part. It’s not clear how much the Americans were involved in end, but their influence was apparent to all especially to the pro-Iran Hashd who were opposed to their presence and assistance.
The final attack on Ramadi started on December 22. The elite Golden Division led the operation crossing a bridge that was construction by the ISF to cross the Warar canal into the center of the city. Iraqi police units came from a different direction. Five days later the Khalidiya Council said that IS was withdrawing to the east taking civilians with them as civilian shields. Then the next day the ISF declared victory and hoisted the Iraqi flag over the government center that was taken by the Islamic State seven months earlier. This was a huge accomplishment for the ISF, which had been humiliated back in May. Not only was it able to liberate the city, the ISF did it largely on their own with Shiite Hashd units mostly on the periphery. This helped PM Abadi as well because he could say his forces and leadership were the right way to take in the fight against IS unlike the pro-Iranian groups who quickly got bogged down in Fallujah, and worked against the Ramadi campaign from the start. Most importantly it exposed the Islamic State. The group can put up a grinding defense, but it lacks the fighters to hold any city against a large and determined government force. At the same time, reaching the middle of a city is only the start of the larger battle to rid Iraq of the insurgency.
The taking of the downtown was not the end of the struggle for Ramadi or against the Islamic State. There are still IS elements in many of the surrounding suburbs and towns and it has re-infiltrated into others. A member of the Anbar council said that there were insurgents in 25% of the city and in the outlaying region that would have to be dealt with. It will take a lot to permanently clear out these fighters, something the ISF has always struggled with. The government is trying to create a new police force to carry out these duties, but the numbers that have appeared in the press are nowhere close to what is required. There are also fears that tribes will want to exact revenge upon those who worked with IS. For example, there was a story that claimed that tribes had lists of collaborators. Carrying out vendettas will not help bring stability to the city or prove that the government is back in control. Last, 80% of the city is reportedly destroyed, and a member of the Anbar Council believed that it would take 10 years worth of budgets to rebuild it. None of these issues are easy to tackle. Fighting will continue in the city and its environs and could quickly deteriorate to what it was like right before the city fell with neighborhoods under IS control. The tribal vengeance can only be deterred if the government is strong, but it may not have the forces or judicial capacity to fully deal with the situation. Finally, real stability can not return to Ramadi until it is reconstructed, services are restored and the authorities have real power over the entire area. These are the challenges that lie ahead and could very well be replayed in future military operations in places like Fallujah and Mosul. If the government can’t get Ramadi right it may not be up to the task of providing real security to other cities after they are freed of IS in the future. The victory in the city therefore, brings both promise and peril that will play out in the coming months.
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