The Iraqi army is closing in on Ramadi

Don’t look now, but the Iraqi army is almost in position to try to recapture Ramadi from ISIS:

More than six months after falling to the Islamic State, the city center of Ramadi is under siege by Iraqi security forces and tribal fighters backed by American air power. Commanders say that as few as 300 militants remain holed up inside, behind a defense of elaborate tunnels, booby-trapped buildings and roads laced with hidden bombs.

As Iraqi soldiers and tribal fighters have advanced on the city, clearing the outlying neighborhoods in preparation for what is expected to be a grueling and bloody fight for the center, they have discovered the things left behind by the Islamic State: lists of former government workers who repented to save their lives, and lists of others believed to have been executed; marriage certificates stamped by an Islamic State court; the bodies of militants.

Civilians, raising white flags to approaching soldiers, have raced to safety under a hail of gunfire by Islamic State fighters who sought to use them as human shields. Others have had to pay hefty bribes to fighters to be allowed to leave.

The big news about this offensive is that, unlike the frankly did-more-harm-than-good offensive that retook Tikrit from ISIS, this time the Iraqi army is leading the way, aided by Sunni tribal forces. Compare that with Tikrit, a majority Sunni city (well, it was, anyway) that was primarily liberated by mostly-Shiʿa Popular Mobilization forces who then brutalized the city’s remaining and returning Sunnis, as they’ve done to Sunnis throughout the areas that they’ve liberated from ISIS. Retaking Ramadi could offer the Iraqi army a shot at redeeming itself for losing the city in the first place, and a model for future collaboration between the army and Sunni fighters.

The American role in the final push to retake the city is unclear. As the fighting moves into the center of the city, airstrikes become less effective and risk higher and higher levels of civilian casualties. Close air support (i.e., helicopters) would probably help, but that would put American forces at elevated risk (which the Obama administration would presumably like to avoid doing) and it might be politically problematic for Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, who has to have an eye on the pro-Iran/Nouri al-Maliki faction of his own party at all times.

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