- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Iraq forces launched an offensive to retake Ramadi on Tuesday, signaling the enormous political pressure the Baghdad government is under to restore faith in its mission to defeat the Islamic State, analysts said.

Col. Steve Warren, Pentagon spokesman, said that Iraqi forces have begun shaping operations to secure communications channels and roads that will be necessary to retake the western Iraqi city just over a week after Islamic State fighters drove Iraqi Security Forces out of the city. Iraqi forces have also started sending troops conducting reconnaissance patrols to gauge the terror group’s locations and defenses in the city.

Nora Bensahel, a scholar at American University, said the government of Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has a lot riding on an operation to retake Ramadi and must move quickly after the major setback when the city fell to terrorist fighters earlier this month.

“They have to do this relatively quickly, even more so for political reasons than military reasons,” she said. “There are good military reasons to go in as soon as they’re ready, but in this case politics are even more important to show the government is capable.”

The fall of the capital of Iraq’s Anbar province in the country’s Sunni heartland brought a rare public rebuke from U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter, who sharply criticized the performance of Iraq’s regular army in abandoning the city in the face of a much smaller Islamic State attacking force.

Islamic State terrorists took full control of Ramadi, a key victory for Americans during the Iraq War, on May 17 after more than a year of divided control by terrorist and government troops in the city. A series of Islamic State-orchestrated car bombs throughout the city helped spark the Iraqi retreat, Col. Warren said.

“Ramadi was embarrassing to the [al-Abadi] government,” Stephen Biddle, an adjunct senior fellow for defense policy at the Council on Foreign Relations, said. “One expects that the government of Iraq would like to combat the impression that it is militarily incompetent by re-establishing government control of the city sooner rather than later.”

The U.S. has sent portable, lightweight anti-tank weapons to Iraq to be used against improvised explosive devices implanted in vehicles, but Col. Warren said they have not yet arrived. Despite the fact that car bombs were a key part of the Islamic State’s victory in Ramadi, Col. Warren said it is “absolutely” smart to begin operations to retake the city even without those weapons.

“Every day the enemy has in Ramadi is another day for the enemy to harden and to develop their defenses,” the Pentagon spokesman said.

Mr. Biddle said terrorist forces will use any delay to lay improvised explosive devices in the city, dig in defensive positions and kill or imprison any government collaborators in the city so they can’t serve as intelligence sources during a battle for the city.

Launching an offensive to retake Ramadi without giving the U.S. a lot of time to retrain Iraqi troops or soften the Islamic State’s defenses with air strikes in the city could also minimize America’s role in retaking the city, something that may be of interest in the Shiite politicians who dominate the Baghdad government, Mr. Biddle said.

Mr. Carter said Sunday on CNN’s “State of the Union” that while the U.S. could train Iraqis and provide weapons, they could not instill a “will to fight” that Iraqi forces at Ramadi lacked.

Michael O’Hanlon, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institute, said that while he was glad to see the “warrior spirit” in the decision to launch an offensive in Ramadi so soon, he was also nervous that Iraqi fighters were not yet ready for the battle.

“If they have the assets to retake Ramadi now, why didn’t they have the assets to defend it two weeks ago?” Mr. O’Hanlon said.

But Ms. Bensahel noted that the forces trying to retake Ramadi in the current offensive are largely Shiite militias, not the Iraqi Security Forces that abandoned the city under pressure. The Shiite fighters are some of the same troops who succeeded in securing Tikrit after a hard-fought battle earlier this year, though Ms. Bensahel said the battle in Ramadi — a larger, more urban city — will likely be more difficult.

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