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