Shiite forces join fight against ISIS in Ramadi

The U.S. acknowledged the fall of Ramadi was ‘a setback’ but said its strategy would not change

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A column of 3,000 Shi'ite militia fighters arrived at a military base near Ramadi on Monday as Baghdad moved to retake the western Iraqi city that fell to Islamic State militants at the weekend in the biggest defeat for the government since mid-2014.

Setting the stage for renewed fighting over the city, Islamic State militants advanced in armoured vehicles from Ramadi towards the base where the Shi'ite paramilitaries were massing for a counter-offensive, witnesses and a military officer said.

Warplanes in the U.S.-led coalition stepped up raids against the Islamists, conducting 19 strikes near Ramadi over the past 72 hours at the request of the Iraqi security forces, a coalition spokesman said.

The United States, which has mounted air strikes on Islamic State positions since last August and sent advisers and arms to rebuild the shattered Iraqi army, acknowledged the fall of Ramadi was “a setback” but said its strategy would not change.

Infographic: How Ramadi fell to ISIS

Infographic: How Ramadi fell to ISIS
Infographic: How Ramadi fell to ISIS

“To read too much into this single fight (over Ramadi) is simply a mistake,” said Colonel Steve Warren, a Pentagon spokesman. “What this means for our strategy, what this means for today, is simply that we, meaning the coalition and our Iraqi partners, now have to go back and retake Ramadi,” he said.

The Shi'ite militia, known as Hashid Shaabi or Popular Mobilisation, was ordered to mobilise after the city, the capital of Anbar province, was overrun on Sunday.

The militiamen give the government far more capability to launch a counterattack, but their arrival could add to sectarian animosity in one of the most violent parts of Iraq.

“Hashid Shaabi forces reached the Habbaniya base and are now on standby,” said the head of the Anbar provincial council, Sabah Karhout.

Massing for a fight

An eyewitness described a long line of armoured vehicles and trucks mounted with machine guns and rockets, flying the yellow flags of Kataib Hezbollah, one of the militia factions, heading towards the base about 30 km (20 miles) from Ramadi.

Spokesmen for militia groups said reconnaissance and planning were under way for the upcoming “battle of Anbar”, the vast Euphrates River valley province bordered by Syria, Jordan and Saudi Arabia where Islamic State forces have taken key towns and roads.

Ramadi is dominated by Sunni Muslims. Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, who is a Shi'ite, signed off on the deployment of Shi'ite militias to try to take back the area, a move he had resisted for fear of provoking a sectarian backlash.

About 500 people have been killed in the fighting for Ramadi in recent days and up to 8,000 have fled, a spokesman for the provincial governor said.

Islamic State said it had seized tanks and killed “dozens of apostates”, its description for members of the Iraqi security forces. An eyewitness in Ramadi said bodies of policemen and soldiers lay in almost every street, with burnt-out military vehicles nearby.

The city's fall marked a major setback for the forces ranged against Islamic State: the U.S.-led coalition and the Iraqi security forces, which have been propped up by Iranian-backed Shi'ite militias

It was also a harsh return to reality for Washington, which at the weekend had mounted a special forces raid in Syria in which it said it killed an Islamic State leader in charge of the group's black market oil and gas sales, and captured his wife.

Limits of U.S.-led strategy

The Iraqi government and Shi'ite paramilitaries recaptured Saddam Hussein's Tigris river home city of Tikrit from Islamic State six weeks ago, the biggest advance since the militants swept through northern Iraq last year. But government forces have had less success in the valley of Iraq's other great river, the Euphrates, west of Baghdad.

An army major who fought his way out of Ramadi said government forces in the area had been ordered to regroup, but soldiers were exhausted and morale was at rock bottom.

To some analysts, the fall of Ramadi shows the limits of the U.S. strategy of attacking from the air but leaving ground fighting to Iraq's military and its Iran-backed militia allies.

“The Americans said that they have carried out air strikes against ISIS but then the group went in and defeated the local forces,” said Hassan Hassan, author of a book on Islamic State. “So they really need to come up with a whole new strategy ... and really take the fight to them.”

U.S. officials said there would be no strategy change and Iraqi forces were ultimately responsible for defeating Islamic State. “We will retake (Ramadi) in the same way that we are slowly but surely retaking other parts of Iraq, and that is with Iraqi ground forces and coalition air power,” Warren, the Pentagon spokesman, said.

Qassim al Fahdawi, an Iraqi government minister, said Iraqi forces lacked the professionalism, training and discipline to withstand a smaller number of skilled Islamic State fighters.

Sunnis fear Shiite militias

While the government in Baghdad has urged Sunni tribes in Anbar to accept help from Shi'ite militia against Islamic State, many Sunnis view the Shi'ite militiamen as a worse threat than the jihadists. Islamic State portrays itself as a defender of Sunnis against sectarian attacks by the Iran-backed fighters.

But some Anbar tribes are so fearful of Islamic State's harsh rule that they may be open to a role even for the hated Shi'ite militias. One tribal leader, Sheikh Abu Majid al-Zoyan, said he was suspicious of the militias, but “at this stage, we welcome any force that will come and liberate us from the chokehold” of Islamic State.

Ali Akbar Velayati, a senior Iranian official, said Tehran was ready to help confront Islamic State, and he was certain the city would be “liberated”.

Islamic State, which emerged as an offshoot of al Qaeda, controls large parts of Iraq and Syria in a self-proclaimed caliphate where it has carried out mass killings of members of religious minorities and beheaded hostages.

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