Chaos in Anbar

Chaos in Anbar

The war against Islamic State may be about to take a sharp turn as Baghdad commits Shia militias on the Anbar front, writes Salah Nasrawi

Hours after Islamic State (IS) insurgents seized the Anbar provincial government headquarters in the city of Ramadi and raised the group’s black flag over the compound, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi vowed the country’s security forces and Shia armed factions would drive the militants back “within the next few hours”.

“Like in any war, there might be a retreat here or there, but we are determined to beat Daesh [IS],” Al-Abadi said in a nationwide televised address using the Arabic acronym of the group. “It will suffer a bitter defeat,” he declared.

Taken at face value, Al-Abadi’s pledge to beat the terror group and retake Ramadi sounds like hollow rhetoric. The extent of the retreat of the Iraqi security forces at the hands of IS militants in Ramadi and the opposition to deploying the Shia Popular Mobilisation Force has called into question a fast victory over the brutal insurgents.

But things change in wars, though they remain largely unpredictable. Whether Al-Abadi can fulfil his steadfast commitment will depend on the “shadow of uncertainty”, or what one of the greatest war strategists, Clausewitz, calls the “interactive nature” of war.

In other words, Al-Abadi will need to have a scheme that will not only underlie the conduct of the war with IS, but will also deal with the Iraqi conflict as a whole.

Iraq’s latest round of chaos began early on 15 May when IS fighters made a foray into Ramadi, the provincial capital of Anbar, Iraq’s largest province and the heartland of the Sunni insurgency since the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003.

Of course, like the widespread mystery surrounding IS militants since their stunning advances in northern and western Iraq last year, there have been many theories about what happened on that fateful day in Ramadi.

Whether the brutal jihadists made a daring push using armoured bulldozers, explosive-rigged cars and suicide bombings to burst through the defences, or whether it was the result of the security forces’ failure to put up a strong resistance, the assailants had taken over the city centre by the afternoon and hoisted IS’s black flag over the provincial government headquarters.

Exactly what happened remains a mystery. There has been no mention of the proximate reasons behind the fall of the city centre to the jihadists who were known to be preparing to attack Ramadi. Much less is known about the circumstances that led the security forces to withdraw from their posts.

Worse still, the entire strategic city fell to IS jihadists two days after government forces abandoned their positions following a massive blitz by suicide car-bomb attacks. The collapse of the police and the security forces recalled the retreat of the Iraqi military forces last summer when IS captured about a third of the country’s territory.

This week’s fiasco ranks among the most humiliating defeats for Al-Abadi, who vowed after retaking Tikrit from IS last month that recapturing Anbar would be Iraq’s next move. Instead, the fall of Ramadi has allowed IS fighters to close in on the capital Baghdad.

IS’s overall operations in Anbar show an offensive strategy intended to wear down the government security forces to the point of collapse through continuous losses of personnel and material. Part of this approach is to create chaos in Baghdad by sending in more suicide bombers and using a fifth column to undermine the city’s security.

Hours before the onslaught in Ramadi, a series of bombings in Baghdad killed and injured dozens of people, mostly Shia on pilgrimage to the shrine of Imam Kadhum north of the city. A mysterious disturbance occurred on 13 May when some pilgrims set fire to a building of the Sunni Endowment after hearing rumours that terrorists wearing explosive belts were attempting to attack them.

By creating a precarious security situation in the capital, IS militants hope to pin down the security forces and the Shia militias in Baghdad and gain more footholds around the capital.

Meanwhile, Ramadi’s fall appears to be a significant blow to the US-backed military coalition to defeat IS. US President Barack Obama has pledged that the aim of the campaign is to “degrade, and ultimately destroy” IS through “a comprehensive and sustained counter-terrorism strategy”.

Indeed, the clumsy strategy, which has excluded the deployment of US ground forces in the combat against IS, has made the United States a minor player in Iraq. Even as IS jihadists were making important gains in Ramadi, US officials were giving assurances that the war against the terror group was going well.

When the militants seized Ramadi in the deadly three-day blitz, Pentagon spokeswoman Elissa Smith said the IS militants had only “gained the advantage” in fighting in the city, stopping short of confirming reports that the group had seized full control of the Anbar provincial capital.

But while the Pentagon was playing down the onslaught on Ramadi and the humiliating new collapse of the Iraqi security forces, American soldiers were embarking on a Hollywood-style operation just across the border in neighbouring Syria.

As IS fighters stormed through Ramadi on 15 May, US special forces sneaked from their bases in Iraq into Syria and killed 12 IS operatives in a raid on their hideout. The White House later declared that among those killed was Abu Sayyaf, described as an instrumental figure in black-market oil smuggling.

The raid was quickly criticised as an attempt to shift the focus from supporting the Iraqi forces in the fight against IS to a PR stunt aimed at drumming up American bravery. If US forces can muster enough intelligence, combat skills and resources to go after one IS operative, Iraqis asked, why shouldn’t they come to aid their soldiers in Ramadi.

Clearly, the stunning fall of Ramadi has shown that the war against IS is in total disarray largely because Baghdad and Washington, having united in a war to stop the expansion of IS, are now utterly at odds as to how to proceed.

America’s proclamation of bringing the war to a triumphant conclusion has been buffeted by doubts by Iraqis about Washington’s commitment and fears about the motives of its policy.

While Washington remains satisfied with its airstrikes on IS targets and sees nothing further, Iraqis believe that the political limitations set by the White House on the US military have not stopped the militants from taking new ground.

The Iraqi government has been relentlessly calling on US forces to work out a joint strategy that could combine their airpower, weaponry and intelligence resources with Iraqi ground combat capability to retake territories lost to IS.

The Iraqis’ frustration was best illustrated by recent remarks by Martin E Dempsey, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, who said that while he didn’t want to see Ramadi fall, its loss wouldn’t reflect the larger picture in the fight against IS.

Earlier, Baghdad and Washington differed publicly on the timetable, tactics and who should take part in the battle to liberate the strategic northern city of Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city.

Worse, their main difference remains the role of the Iran-backed Shia militias in the war against IS. While Washington has been preventing Baghdad from resorting to the militias for fear of a backlash from the Sunni population, Baghdad has been relying heavily on fighters from the Shia factions to dislodge IS from its positions.

The fall of Ramadi, however, seems to have left Al-Abadi with no other choice but to resist the American pressure and ask the Shia militias to deploy in Anbar and to be prepared for a counter-offensive to take back Ramadi and the rest of the province.

While acting on a desperate request by the Anbar Provincial Council and tribal leaders to send Shia militias to help fight IS and win back its cities, Al-Abadi seems also to have acted on Clausewitz’s advice that a commander cannot remain for very long in such a state without incurring “the perils of hesitation”.

By sending the Popular Mobilisation Force to Anbar, Al-Abadi has been able to demonstrate a willingness to resist the US script which would have mortgaged the liberation of areas taken by IS to an ambiguous strategy that would not only have prolonged the dangerous standoff but would ultimately have threatened Iraq’s unity.

A lot of the success of Al-Abadi now depends on how the Popular Mobilisation Force will behave in Anbar, not only in driving the IS militants back, but also in winning the trust of the Sunni population.

With its vast territories and a powerful IS force in situ, Anbar is certainly a great military challenge, but it could be a political opportunity too.

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