- The Washington Times - Monday, December 28, 2015

After months of training with U.S. advisers, Iraq’s military scored a key and symbolic victory Monday by driving the Islamic State from a central clutch of government buildings in the western Iraqi city of Ramadi, although major challenges lie ahead as the terrorist group still holds vital pockets of the city.

Iraqi flags were raised Monday over downtown Ramadi, the capital and most populous city of the nation’s Sunni Muslim Anbar province.

Analysts said the stage is now set for a potentially bloody and prolonged battle.

A top Iraqi military spokesman initially said the city was “grabbed from the hateful claws” of the Islamic State, also known as ISIS and ISIL, and had been “fully liberated.” But a general in charge of operations in Anbar quickly clarified the statement.

“We can’t say that Ramadi is fully liberated,” said Gen. Ismail al-Mahlawi. “There are still neighborhoods under their control, and there are still resistance pockets.”



Gen. al-Mahlawi made the comments to The Associated Press, which reported that Islamic State fighters had retreated from some 70 percent of the city, but the Iraqi army was not yet in control of those areas.

The push into Ramadi’s center, however, marked the first significant advance by Iraq’s military since it essentially dissolved 18 months ago in the face of the Islamic State’s advance across Anbar and northern portion of the country.

Analysts called it a key win for Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, who heads the nation’s Shiite-dominated central government in Baghdad. It’s also a small triumph for the Obama administration, which put its faith in Mr. al-Abadi last year and has claimed to be following his lead in the war against the Islamic State.

Part of the effort has centered on retraining a nonsectarian Iraqi military capable of seizing and holding territory from the extremists.

But the Obama administration also has spent months pressuring Mr. al-Abadi to extend a hand to Iraq’s Sunnis, whose disenfranchisement under Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is seen to have fostered the rise of the Islamic State, a group of mostly Salafist Sunnis.

Administration officials hailed Monday’s development and were quick to credit the al-Abadi government.

“The gains we saw today are a tribute to the prime minister’s strong leadership and his belief in a unified Iraq for all its citizens,” said Secretary of State John F. Kerry.

“As soon as Ramadi fell to ISIL last May, Iraqi Prime Minister al-Abadi developed a comprehensive plan for a counteroffensive,” Mr. Kerry said, asserting that the plan was presented to the U.S.-led coalition battling the Islamic State, which “answered the call to support it through training, advising, logistics and stabilization support.”

“These gains attest to the growing confidence and capability of Iraqi forces who are fighting bravely against a ruthless adversary employing suicide bombers, snipers and improvised explosive devices,” the secretary of state said.

Defense Secretary Ashton Carter also congratulated the al-Abadi government.

“The expulsion of ISIL by Iraqi Security Forces, supported by our international coalition, is a significant step forward in the campaign to defeat this barbaric group and restore Iraq’s territorial sovereignty,” Mr. Carter said.

Col. Steve Warren, a Pentagon spokesman based in Baghdad, called it “a proud moment for Iraq,” although he added that the U.S.-led coalition gave the Iraqis steadfast support by conducting more than 630 airstrikes, training security forces and providing advice and specialized engineering equipment to clear bombs and booby traps.

The coming battle

What remains to be seen is whether the Iraqi Security Forces will be able to completely retake and maintain control of Ramadi, a city of nearly 1 million people.

Mr. Kerry noted that the Islamic State was defeated in other Iraqi cities, including Tikrit, Baiji and Sinjar.

The secretary of state did not mention that territory in those cities was retaken mainly by Kurdish forces and Iran-backed Shiite militias, both of which have been more organized and effective than the Iraqi military against the Islamic State.

Part of the reason Ramadi has remained in the extremists’ hands for so long, analysts say, is that the al-Abadi government has resisted deploying the Kurdish and Shiite forces deeply into Anbar in order to avoid a sectarian meltdown. The province’s majority Sunni Arab population once posed major challenges for U.S. military forces during their 2003-2011 occupation of Iraq.

Ramadi and other Anbar cities, specifically nearby Fallujah, were the scenes of fierce battles between U.S. troops and the Islamic State’s predecessor, al Qaeda in Iraq. American forces gained the upper hand when the province’s main tribes rose up against al Qaeda during the “Sunni Awakening,” which coincided with a major U.S. troop surge in 2007.

Critics say the Obama administration and Mr. al-Abadi have struggled to inspire a re-creation of the awakening.

An analysis by the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War suggests that the absence of a large, reliable and loyal Sunni tribal force in Anbar is likely to make it difficult for the Shiite-dominated government in Baghdad to hold Ramadi.

“It is unclear who will ultimately hold and secure Ramadi against counter-attacks by ISIS,” according to the analysis, which said Iranian proxy militias positioned to the east of the city may “advance into Ramadi’s eastern suburbs and towards the city center in order [to] obtain leverage over the final composition of the security forces in the city.”

“Iranian proxy militias made a similar move in Tikrit in April 2015, positioning themselves around some of Tikrit’s entrances in order to control who could enter and exit the city,” the analysis said. “Intervention by Iranian proxy militias in Ramadi would undermine ISF operations and the overall security of the area by inflaming sectarian tensions.”

Mr. Kerry appeared to reject such analysis Monday by asserting that efforts to stabilize and rebuild Ramadi will be “coordinated on the ground by Anbar Gov. Sohaib al-Rawi and his team.”

During background interviews with The Washington Times, U.S. officials have described the governor as the go-to source for recruiting Sunni tribal fighters to hold territory seized by the Iraqi military.

Mr. Kerry said Monday that “the stabilization process will be supported by thousands of local police and tribal forces, many of whom have been trained by” the U.S.-led counter-Islamic State coalition of international powers.

Mr. Carter made similar assertions.

“Now it’s important for the Iraqi government, working with provincial and local authorities, to seize this opportunity to maintain the peace in Ramadi, prevent the return of ISIL and other extremists and facilitate the return of Ramadi’s citizens back to the city,” the defense chief said.

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