An Iraqi fighter from the Shiite militia, the League of the Righteous, stands guard outside the militia's headquarters in Basra. (photo: حيدر محمد علي)
Early in the morning on May 15, the extremist group known as the Islamic State launched a surprise attack on bases held by the regular Iraqi army and police in Ramadi. The city has been one of the few major centres in the province of Anbar that was not already in the hands of the Islamic State, or IS, group.
The IS group base their ideology on Sunni Islam and most of the population of Anbar are Sunni Muslims – although far from everyone wants the extremists in charge there, conflicts between different Sunni tribes, long-standing Sunni protests against the policies of the previous Iraqi government headed by Nouri al-Maliki, a Shiite politician, and the shared sect have made Anbar an easier target for the IS group.
However Ramadi had never fallen to the IS group, having become one of the last outposts for official pro-government forces in the Iraqi army and local police and anti-IS tribal fighters. Skirmishes between the IS group and Iraqi security forces here have been going on for months and Ramadi often seemed to be on the brink of falling to the IS group.
On this particular Monday morning, the IS group used suicide bombers to disrupt long-held defensive lines. This saw the IS fighters able to reach local government headquarters as well as army headquarters in Ramadi.
The bombings caused confusion and the military’s lines of communication were cut. Chaos ensued and once again, the Iraqi army decided to withdraw. The Iraqi military went first, moving to the Habbaniya military base, and the local police left their positions just a few hours later. The IS group quickly moved into the areas the military had deserted, raising their flag on the roof of the provincial council building and the army’s former headquarters.
“In just one day, we lost a year and a half of resistance against the IS group,” Majid al-Alwani, a tribal leader in Ramadi, told NIQASH, referring to the fact that some tribes had been fighting the extremists in this area, in one shape or another, for far longer than June last year. “The IS group has been trying and failing to control Ramadi for months now. I regret to say this but they have finally achieved that goal.”
Al-Alwani, who lost a son two months ago in fighting against the IS group in the Al Bu Farraj area, blames the Iraqi government and the Iraqi army for the city’s fall. “The government didn’t give the local tribes the kinds of serious weaponry needed for them to assist the Iraqi army here,” he complains.
Within hours of taking control of Ramadi the IS group was up to its usual tricks: imprisoning or executing those they saw as enemies in the city, releasing prisoners and inviting them to join its ranks and beginning to build fortifications inside Ramadi in preparation for a counter-attack.
One senior Iraqi intelligence officer, who couldn’t be named because he wasn’t authorized to speak on the subject, told NIQASH that the IS group’s fighters seemed to be particularly motivated by a new speech by the group’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
“We have information that after the news of al-Baghdadi’s injury surfaced, there were conflicts between the group’s leaders,” the intelligence officer said. There had been disagreements between local fighters and foreign fighters as to who would take al-Baghdadi’s place at the top. However these seemed to evaporate as soon as al-Baghdadi reappeared and focus went back onto the fighting, the officer reported.
The fall of Ramadi resulted in significant security and political developments. Firstly the fall of the city saw tensions between the Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi and the unofficial Shiite Muslim militias, that have played an important role in the fight against the IS group, ease. Relationships between the two had been deteriorating for several weeks after al-Abadi asked the Shiite Muslim militias to withdraw from fighting for fear of alienating the Sunni population, and because some militias had been seen looting and committing acts of revenge, and even murder.
The second major event was the fact that Sunni Muslim politicians agreed to let the Shiite Muslim militias enter the Sunni-majority city. And thirdly, it seems that the US – one of Iraq’s major allies, which had, up until recently, been lobbying for less of a powerful role for the Shiite militias, has also acquiesced to the need for the Shiite militias to fight in Ramadi.
These changes of heart – and policy – could be interpreted in a number of ways. The city of Ramadi is close to Baghdad, only around 100km away in fact. This puts the IS group not only closer to the Iraqi capital but also closer to the military bases, Habbaniya and Ain al-Assad, where US trainers and other US military personnel are located. One base is east of Ramadi and the other lies to the west. The US clearly doesn’t want to withdraw its personnel from those bases. The bases would be difficult to attack anyway (IS fighters have tried and failed already) but to withdraw would be the US admitting defeat. However US advisers do seem to have realised that the Iraqi army isn’t capable of winning this fight alone, if at all. Airstrikes by the international coalition don’t seem to have been enough either.
A day after the fall of Ramadi, a number of senior Iraqi politicians held a meeting that was also attended by the US Ambassador to Iraq, Stuart Jones. The meeting was attended by leading Sunni politician, Salim al-Jibouri, who is Parliament’s Speaker, as well as members of Anbar’s provincial council.
Some of the council members apparently criticised US reluctance to directly arm the Sunnis in Anbar who were opposed to the IS group. One of the council members who attended the meeting but couldn’t be named because he was not at liberty to speak about it, told NIQASH that Ambassador Jones did not seem too concerned about the plans for Shiite militias to fight in Anbar. “The Ambassador said his country didn’t oppose them fighting in Anbar as long as they were still under the command of al-Abadi,” the council member said.
And two days after Ramadi fell, al-Abadi met with al-Jibouri. The two politicians agreed that the Shiite militias should be allowed to enter Ramadi and fight against the IS group. Al-Jibouri has said that the Iraqi Parliament will also announce an official decision on the matter after this recess.
In a private meeting in Baghdad that media were not privy to, members of the Anbar provincial council also voted on whether they should allow the Shiite militias to enter Ramadi. The council members concluded that they had no other option – the government security forces did not seem capable of defending the city and the militias now appear to be the strongest military force in the country.
Now there remains only one problem: the conditions that some of the Shiite militias, especially those who appear to have closer ties to Iran than to the Iraqi government, will impose if they are to go back to fighting. The leaders of these kinds of militias – including Hezbollah in Iraq, the League of the Righteous and the Badr Brigades – had been having an increasingly testy relationship with al-Abadi. Now they’re in a more powerful position and more likely to get their way on requests like immunity from prosecution during this crisis.
Currently the militias seem to be on stand by. They have started to call upon all their members to join their units as soon as possible. There are also reports of secret meetings taking place, bringing together Iraqi officials, US officials and the leaders of the Shiite militias. If what seems to be happening really is – that is, the meetings are being held to draw up battle plans and coordinate different parties in the fighting – this could be the first time that the US cooperates openly with the Shiite militias in the ongoing fight against the IS group.