Ramadi is free again

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi walks with his security detail in the city of Ramadi, December 29, 2015.
Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi planted the national flag in Ramadi on December 29,2015, after the army retook the city center from Islamic State a day earlier.

If the Anbar provincial capital can be fully secured and re-populated, it would be the first major success for the U.S.-trained force that fled 18 months ago as jihadist Islamic State militants surged through northern and western Iraq.

Security forces must still remove explosives planted in streets and buildings and clear out fighters in some densely built-up areas, and much of the infrastructure needs to be rebuilt.

The army’s apparent capture of Ramadi, in the Euphrates River valley west of Baghdad, marks a milestone for the forces, which crumbled when the hardline Sunni Muslim militants seized a third of Iraq in June 2014.

In battles since then, Iraq’s armed forces had ois freeperated mainly in a supporting role beside powerful Iranian-backed Shi’ite Muslim militias.

“Ramadi is an example that the regular army wishes to promote for upcoming battles of liberation,” said Hashimi al-Hashimi, a Baghdad-based analyst who has worked with the Iraqi government

Ramadi was the only city to have fallen under Islamic State control since Abadi took office in September 2014.

Abadi’s Shi’ite-led government has said for months it would prove the rebuilt capability of the army by reversing militant gains in Anbar, a mainly Sunni, largely desert province stretching to the borders of Syria, Saudi Arabia and Jordan.

As part of his security reforms, Abadi last year scrapped 50,000 “ghost soldiers” – army members who don’t actually exist but whose salaries are collected – and changed security chiefs in a bid to improve performance. But he has faced resistance to dismantling a patronage system and rooting out incompetence in the security apparatus and other state organs.

Iraqi forces, though backed by U.S.-led coalition air strikes, had been slowed in Ramadi by bombs planted in streets and booby-trapped buildings by Islamic State fighters. Iraqi and U.S. officials have said pockets of insurgents held up in the city and its outskirts still needed to be cleared.

The government has said local Sunni tribal fighters would comprise the main holding force in Ramadi, a role played in other areas taken from Islamic State by mainly Iranian-backed Shi’ite armed groups which have been held back from Ramadi for fear of stoking sectarian tensions.

Such a strategy would echo the U.S. military’s “surge” campaign of 2006-2007, which relied on recruiting and arming Sunni tribal fighters against al Qaeda, Islamic State’s precursor. Anbar, including Ramadi, was a major focus of that campaign at the height of the 2003-2011 U.S. war in Iraq.

While the earlier Sunni tribal force numbered in the tens of thousands, only a few thousand fighters have so far been prepared to operate in Ramadi this time.

Source: REUTERS excerpts