Although there may still be some pockets of ISIS resistance that need to be cleared out, it appears that the Iraqi army has retaken the city of Ramadi. It will take some time to fully secure the surrounding countryside and to clear the city of any IEDs the retreating ISIS fighters may have left behind, and it will take a whole lot more time to rebuild the city, an estimated 80% of which is now in ruins. But the city must be rebuilt, and its Sunni residents welcomed back, as a part of the effort to undermine ISIS’s message, and the Iraqi government appears to understand that:
Iraqi politicians and development agencies are looking to Ramadi to become a flagship example of the Iraqi government’s ability to rebuild. They hope that reconstructing the city will vindicate Iraq’s Shiite-dominated government in the eyes of the city’s mostly Sunni population, who have long accused the central government of discrimination and sectarian repression.
You can be pretty sure that the city has been retaken because not only has Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi already made a triumphant visit there, but the ISIS forces who fled Ramadi seem to have found new work bolstering the group’s year-long siege of nearby Haditha:
But this week, the militants turned their guns on Haditha, a strategic area about 90 miles northwest of Ramadi and home to Iraq’s second-largest hydroelectric dam. U.S. troops are also training Iraqi forces at the Ayn al-Asad military base just 20 miles away. The militants have had Haditha encircled for more than a year.
Haditha, in Anbar province, holds both symbolic and strategic significance. The district is one of the last government redoubts amid swaths of militant-held territory in the desert of western Iraq. And its six-mile-long dam generates power for large tracts of the country, granting whoever controls it influence over much of Iraq’s electricity and water supplies.
Troops in Haditha said the three-day attacks by the Islamic State were unprecedented in the area. On Monday, the U.S.-led coalition launched two strikes on several Islamic State targets near Haditha — the first time warplanes have struck in the area since November, according to coalition statements.
“These are the most violent attacks we’ve ever seen in this area,” Sabah Ali, an Iraqi army captain with the 7th Division in an area known as Barwana, said of the Islamic State offensive.
The long term goal is to dislodge ISIS from Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city and the group’s Iraqi base of operations, but the immediate follow-up looks like it will target Fallujah, which sits east of Ramadi, between it and Baghdad, but the fighting there may be harder than it was in Ramadi:
Iraqi security forces, Pentagon officials said, have begun to approach Falluja from three different directions, and are now in what officials called the “isolation” part of the campaign to retake the city. Iraqi forces are trying to encircle the city — “like a boa constrictor” — one official said, and will then move to squeeze out Islamic State fighters, much in the same way they did in Ramadi.
But Falluja is not Ramadi — it is more densely populated. The same goes for Mosul. And Islamic State militants are far more entrenched in Falluja and Mosul, where they have been for much longer, than they were in Ramadi, and that will make it more difficult to root them out, defense officials acknowledged.
Fallujah is in many ways the center of Sunni discontent in Anbar Province–it, along with Ramadi, was the scene of the largest Sunni demonstrations against Baghdad in 2012-2013, and it was among the first of ISIS’s major Iraqi conquests, in January 2014. It’s also precariously close to Baghdad, so driving ISIS out of there would obviously be in Abadi’s best interests and could put a damper on ISIS’s ongoing terror campaign in the Iraqi capital.
The task now will be to try to maintain the Iraqi army-Sunni tribal fighter framework that retook Ramadi in Fallujah, with the goal of turning those Sunni tribal forces into a police-type force that can secure the newly conquered cities without the kind of vendetta-seeking and violence against Sunni residents that marred the “liberation” of Tikrit back in March-April. Assuming Fallujah is successfully liberated, the next challenge will be grafting Kurdish fighters onto the force for the Mosul fight.
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