Tag Archives: Anbar

After Anbar

After Anbar

The long-expected battle for Anbar has begun in Iraq, but there are huge concerns about its aftermath, writes Salah Nasrawi

For weeks, Iraqi security forces and Shia paramilitaries have been encircling the city of Ramadi, where the government is planning a major offensive to dislodge Islamic State (IS) terror group militants who captured the city, the capital of Anbar Province, some three months ago.

The Iraqi government has now announced the start of a campaign to retake the Sunni-dominated Anbar Province west of Baghdad on 13 July. The offensive includes plans to liberate Fallujah, which has been an IS stronghold since its seizure by extremists in January 2014.

There has been little information about the operation amid a government blackout and increasing concerns about the military and political strategy to fully pacify Anbar and other Sunni-populated provinces after taking them back from IS.

IS militants captured vast amounts of territory in Iraq, including the country’s second-largest city of Mosul, last year, following an uprising by Sunnis protesting against what they claimed was their exclusion and marginalisation by the Shia-led government.

With the Anbar campaign gaining momentum, thousands of Iraqi fighters have joined in the battle, with much of the main thrust of the offensive seemingly directed at Fallujah, some 60 km west of the capital Baghdad.

Iraqi officials say government forces, mainly Shia Popular Mobilisation Units and Sunni pro-government fighters, are taking part in the onslaught to retake this rebellious city. Fallujah was the scene of major battles with American forces following the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003.

After the US troop withdrawal in 2011, Iraqi security forces fought the rebels as the city turned into a bastion of Sunni resistance against the Shia-led government. With the flare-up of the Sunni uprising in December 2012, the government gradually lost control of Fallujah to IS-led rebels.

Government spokesmen now say that Iraqi forces are making major strides in areas near Fallujah and that the city has fallen under a tight siege from four directions and leading to its centre, which they expect to soon fall.

Fallujah’s proximity to Baghdad makes it strategically important for the Iraqi government. While its liberation will drive IS militants far from the capital, Fallujah’s capture is also key to securing Ramadi and the rest of Anbar Province.

In the past few weeks, Iraqi security forces, Shia militias and local pro-government Sunni tribes have been moving to cut the militants’ supply lines and to surround and isolate Ramadi and Fallujah.

Last week, Iraq closed its border with Jordan until further notice. The closure is intended to choke off one of the militants’ sources of finance, depriving them of the taxes they impose on trucks driving through their territory.

But as the coalition of Iraqi forces takes up strategic positions closer to Fallujah and Ramadi, the key question is when will the major offensive to retake the two cities be launched.

Since the seizure of Ramadi in May, the Iraqi government has many times announced an operation to liberate Anbar, but there have not been any major advances on the ground. This could mean that there are disagreements about what strategies should be adopted in the battle for Anbar. The campaign could determine not only the course of the war against IS but also the tide of historical events in Iraq.

On Saturday, Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi said the push in Anbar was being conducted according to plans made some time ago. Like other government officials, Al-Abadi did not set a specific date for the start of the offensive, but he promised the province will eventually be liberated.

Leaders of the Shia militias, however, have announced that the decision to retake the two key cities should be taken by the government, highlighting difficulties in forging a unified strategy against IS.

The United States, which is taking part in the campaign by carrying out air strikes against IS targets, does not appear to support elements of the Anbar offensive, as planned by the Iraqi government.

Strategically, Washington has offered a timeline for the fight against IS that could be years long. Tactically, US generals have opposed a simultaneous operation to recapture both Ramadi and Fallujah, suggesting instead a speedy offensive in Ramadi in order to prevent IS from establishing itself in the city.

Operations against IS in Anbar may have begun to yield some results for Iraqi troops, which have been able to besiege IS militants in Ramadi and Fallujah and force them to slow down their advance. The Iraqi coalition may also be able to push back the militants to the desert or into neighbouring Syria.

But in order for the Iraqi government to regain control of the one third of its territory lost to the jihadists it needs a comprehensive strategy that can defeat IS and hasten its demise.

Recapturing Ramadi and Fallujah would change the situation dramatically in favour of the Iraqi Shia-led government, but Iraqi troops will still face further battles in Anbar on their way to take back Mosul, Iraq’s second city.

Baghdad needs a military approach that does not alienate the Sunni population and create further communal divisions in the divided and war-torn country. While the Shia-dominated Popular Mobilisation Units have proven to be a powerful partner in the war against IS, the government should be careful in deploying militias that have been known for heavy-handed actions and sometimes brutality against the local populations in liberated areas.

The army should also avoid collateral damage while conducting its operations in Anbar. The international human rights group Human Rights Watch has alleged that the Iraqi government has been dropping barrel bombs and may also have targeted a hospital in its battle with militants in the conflict-hit province.

Fear of both the militias and scorched-earth tactics have triggered a mass exodus from Anbar. Tens of thousands of civilians now find themselves trapped between IS militants ready to use them as human shields and a government suspicious of their loyalties.

Military means on their own will also never be enough to destroy the terror group. IS militants have been driven from many areas in Iraq, but they are still fighting on several fronts. In recent weeks IS sleeper cells in Baghdad have carried out a series of devastating bomb attacks targeting Shia areas and disrupted security forces defending the capital.

On Friday, an IS suicide bomber detonated a small truck in a crowded marketplace in Khan Bani Saad, east of Baghdad, killing some 130 people and wounding dozens of others in one of the deadliest single attacks in the country in years.

Retaking Anbar will certainly be a strategic victory over the IS militants, but Iraqi Shia leaders should start thinking of long-term successes rather than transitory gains. The campaign against the terror group will only be successful over the long term if the Iraqi government pursues an approach that overcomes the sectarian split and opens up towards the Sunnis.

With millions of Sunnis leaving areas under IS control amid reports that the terror group is using residents of Fallujah as human shields, the insurgents are losing the strategic depth they need to defend their territory.

Efforts should also be made to find solutions to the sectarian war by fully accommodating nationalist Sunnis who distance themselves from IS and other rebel groups and are ready to work for a political solution.

While a unified nationalist Sunni front remains essential to representing the interests of the Sunni community in Iraq, the Shia ruling factions should also give up the tactical alliance they have built with corrupt, power-hungry and acquiescent Sunni politicians since the 2003 US-led invasion.

This marriage of convenience has given inclusiveness a bad name. After driving IS militants out of occupied cities and towns, Iraq will need new arrangements in which the Sunnis can find their place in a new political set-up in the country. In the post-IS era, Iraq will need a new political system that forces the corrupt and inept multi-ethnic and sectarian political class to give up what has become an extremely lucrative arrangement. This will pave the way for a new leadership to come to power, one that is not based on religious or ethnic beliefs.

Indeed, the future of Iraq is now inevitably tied to the emergence of such secular leaders and movements. The war against IS is a make-or-break moment for the ill-fated nation.

This article appeared first in Al Ahram Weekly on July 23, 2015



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.