FPI Bulletin: Ramadi Victory Highlights Iraqi Challenges to Come

January 4, 2016

The retaking of Ramadi by Iraqi forces marks an important achievement — but not necessarily a turning point — in the campaign to defeat the Islamic State. While Washington and Baghdad hailed the victory as proof of the Iraqi Security Forces’ (ISF) growing capabilities, Pentagon officials have privately acknowledged that the ISF conventional forces only supported the efforts of commandos backed by U.S. airpower. The Ramadi offensive may therefore constitute a poor model for future efforts to reclaim territory from the Islamic State, especially the critical stronghold of Mosul. As such, President Obama’s overall strategy likely remains inadequate to prosecute the war to a successful conclusion.

The Islamic State — also known as ISIS, ISIL, and Daesh — captured Ramadi in May 2015 after months of conflict that culminated in the ISF’s wholesale retreat despite its vastly superior numbers, which prompted Defense Secretary Ashton Carter to assert that the ISF “showed no will to fight.” By contrast, President Obama dismissed the defeat as a “tactical setback.” “I don’t think we’re losing,” he said, noting that the United States had not yet completed training Iraqi forces. “So our efforts now,” Carter declared, “are devoted to providing their ground forces with the equipment, the training and to try to encourage their will to fight, so that our campaign enabling them can be successful both in defeating ISIL and keeping ISIL defeated in a sustained way.”

Seven months later, the U.S. and Iraqi governments have portrayed the recapture of Ramadi as a sign of the ISF’s renewed strength. The Iraqi army’s performance, said Col. Steve Warren, a Pentagon spokesman, demonstrates that it “has evolved from a counterinsurgency army to an army successfully conducting conventional operations.” Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi wrote on Facebook that the Islamic State “is collapsing because of the military operations and hard strikes by our heroic forces. The next step is to liberate Mosul and to cleanse the Iraqi lands that have been raped by the terrorist Daesh gang.”

The Obama administration also claims that the ISF recovered Ramadi without the aid of Iran-backed Shiite militias, which played a key role in recapturing other ISIS-held cities such as Tikrit, Baiji and Sinjar. “There were no Shia militias involved in this operation for Ramadi,” said Col. Warren. In light of the violence that militias inflicted on other Sunni populations following their liberation from ISIS, their claimed absence in Ramadi should come as a welcome development. To consolidate its gains in western Iraq, Baghdad must show the region’s Sunnis that liberation from ISIS does not entail submission to Shiite forces known for their brutality.

Nevertheless, the administration’s conclusions about the strength of the ISF and the sidelining of the militias may both prove premature.

Speaking on background to The Daily Beast, Pentagon officials stated that Iraq’s Counter Terrorism Service (CTS), an elite force consisting of several hundred troops, led the fight in Ramadi with the aid of U.S. airstrikes. At the same time, they said, the ISF only “served in a support role, pointing out ISIS positions for air attacks and holding the roads that led to the city center where troops Monday flew the Iraqi flag.” “This was not an aggressive ISF ground campaign,” said one official. “They were mostly coordinating and providing security for the counter terrorism unit and maintaining a perimeter, which can be quite taxing.”

In this context, Pentagon officials noted, “The ISF cannot clear cities filled with civilians, hold multiple cities, or win territory without punishing coalition airstrikes that leave places like Ramadi demolished.” Col. Warren, the Pentagon spokesman, acknowledged that coalition airstrikes accounted for 80 percent of the effort in Ramadi. If the ISF cannot retake ISIS-held terrain without this kind of devastation, it will be difficult to show Iraqi Sunnis that they have much to gain by embracing Baghdad.

All in all, the fight for Ramadi, a city that once harbored some 200,000 residents, required more than 600 U.S. airstrikes that struck some 2,500 targets in order to defeat an ISIS force that numbered in the hundreds. As a result, Iraqi officials estimate that 80 percent of Ramadi now lies in ruins. Iraqi forces must still defuse explosive booby traps littered throughout the city. (According to Iraqi army commanders, 300 traps reside in and around Ramadi’s government compound alone.) And while Baghdad now controls the majority of Ramadi, ISIS has counterattacked with multiple suicide car bombs. Sunni tribal leaders told CNN that ISIS may still hold 25 percent of Ramadi, while BBC footage shows black ISIS banners flying in pockets of resistance in the center of the city.

Additional grounds for concern stem from emerging evidence that Shiite militias may have played a role in recapturing Ramadi notwithstanding the Pentagon’s insistence to the contrary. Retired Army Col. Derek Harvey told Newsweek that the militias were “very much involved” in the offensive, participating in the guise of Interior Ministry forces. Michael Pregent, a retired U.S. Army intelligence officer, has posted photos on Twitter of Shiite militia leaders in the city. A pro-Shiite militia Twitter feed released a photo of a Shiite group raising the Iraqi flag over Ramadi’s Anbar Operations Command Center. And Iraqi Vice President Nouri al-Maliki, who served as prime minister from 2006 to 2014, has publicly praised Shiite forces for their role in Ramadi’s liberation. In light of Maliki’s pervasive effort to subordinate the ISF to Shiite control, these developments should not come as a surprise.

The complex reality surrounding Ramadi’s recapture therefore offers limited room for optimism as Baghdad sets its sights on its next targets. Mosul, with a population of 1.5 million, harbors some 4,500 ISIS fighters who have spent the past 18 months fortifying their defenses. While the elite CTS may have led the ISF campaign to liberate Ramadi, it simply lacks the manpower to replicate that role in Mosul.

A different approach may achieve a more fruitful outcome. The true test of success lies not merely in reclaiming territory, but in demonstrating to the country’s Sunni population that Baghdad will treat them fairly and protect them from both Sunni and Shiite extremists. The Obama administration can begin this process — and ultimately help Iraq recapture Mosul — by expediting its training of Sunni Iraqi forces and assembling, in conjunction with other nations, a significant ground force that can complement an accelerated and more effective air campaign. As Secretary Carter might say, to defeat ISIS, the United States must show the will to help Iraq fight.

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