Iraq: Why the battle for Anbar could be decisive

On Sunday 17 May, after a four-day offensive, the Iraqi city of Ramadi fell to the Islamic State (IS).

Ramadi, the capital of Iraq’s second largest province, Anbar, and 70 miles west of Baghdad, was a main target for IS even before the militants captured the country’s third-largest city, Mosul, in June last year. This is largely because of Ramadi’s strategic location as the ‘vein’ of Baghdad in the centre and Karbala in the south, as well as its proximity to the borders of Saudi Arabia, Syria and Jordan.

Since early 2014, when IS took over most of Anbar province, Ramadi has been under threat by IS’s recurrent offensives. However, the pace of events last week was unexpected.

IS appeared to have been defeated in the city of Tikrit last month, but it seems that the militants withdrew to plan for a bigger operation. The nature of the offensive echoed the attack on Mosul. Explosives-laden cars, booby-trapped roads and suicide bombs were used to advance across the city. Around 500 civilians were reportedly executed as ‘apostates’. Among the victims were whole families with very young children.

Following the flight of security force commanders and federal police on 15 May, IS fighters were able to take over the government complex and police headquarters, with all of the weapons and military equipment left inside the complex falling to the militants. On Sunday, IS seized the Anbar Operations Command Headquarters in central Ramadi after the withdrawal of the last Iraqi forces as the building was attacked by mortars.

Speculation around the reason behind this military ‘setback’, as the Pentagon described it, has varied. While some claimed it was because of a shortage of weapons and numbers of Iraqi forces, others referred to political bargains by some of the security commanders.

Whatever the cause, IS’s capture of Ramadi has had serious consequences. On the political level, the Shia paramilitary popular units – unwelcomed by most Sunni politicians – have been called in by Prime Minster al-Abadi to help retake Ramadi, with the Anbar Provisional Council officially requesting the intervention. Although the Pentagon seems to have accepted this deployment, many Sunni politicians are still reluctant for any involvement of these Shia units, fearing sectarian tension and blaming the government for not equipping Sunni tribes with the necessary weapons to fight IS. Local tribesmen fighting IS have been forced to withdraw to eastern Ramadi.

Prime Minister al-Abadi has also announced new procedures: changing security commanders, identifying new defence lines, and redeploying security forces. Despite the American assurance of continued support, many observers believe the American strategy of fighting IS is not clear and that the coalition airstrikes are not being used to target the locations of IS militants.

On the economic level, the military infrastructure in Anbar province has been destroyed by IS. On the humanitarian level, concerns are increasing over 25,000 displaced people who fled their homes in Ramadi on foot, setting out to Baghdad. Amid fears that IS-linked men could be within the displaced, the Iraqi government has granted conditional entrance to the capital for those fleeing Ramadi. The majority of families have reportedly been stuck on Bzeibez Bridge, suffering from difficult conditions in hot weather. Although groups of medical teams, relief organisations and activists have visited, the assistance is not sufficient. 

The wider impact is IS’s attempt to rework the social texture of the local tribes in Ramadi and Anbar province. After gaining control of the city, its militants used the mosques’ loudspeakers to urge people to drop their weapons and cooperate with IS. Local sources claim that IS is recruiting teenagers to fight – a tactic used after the capture of Mosul and other areas to quadruple the IS force from 4,600 to 16,000 between June 2014 and April 2015. 

As IS is already speaking of its next targets – the holy city of Karbala and then Baghdad – the Anbar battle could be a decisive moment in Iraq.

Balsam Aone Mustafa, Doctoral Candidate in Modern Languages and Politics, University of Birmingham