ATbar Between Ramadi and Mosul - the War against ISIS
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Between Ramadi and Mosul - the War against ISIS

06/01/2016 | by Shay, Shaul (Dr.)  

The Iraqi city of Ramadi, a former ISIS stronghold, was liberated in a fierce battle between ISIS militants and government forces on December 27, 2015. Ramadi - the provincial capital in the Euphrates River Valley west of Baghdad - is the biggest city to have been recaptured from Islamic State by Iraq's army, and the first major victory for the U.S.-trained Iraqi army since it collapsed in the face of an assault by ISIS 18 months ago.

On December 28, 2015, Iraq's prime minister, Haider al-Abadi, visited the city of Ramadi. Abadi congratulated the security forces in a televised speech: “The year 2016will be the year of the big and final victory, when [ISIS's] presence in Iraq will be terminated," Abadi said. "We are coming to liberate Mosul and it will be the fatal and final blow to [ISIS]." [1]

The composition of the Iraqi military forces in the battle of Ramadi included the Counter-Terrorism Service (CTS), formations from the 8th Iraqi Army Division, local police, and tribal fighters from Anbar Province. The operation to recapture Ramadi began in October 2015 when despite the Iraqi Security Forces reaching the Albu Farraj area north of Ramadi, progress remained slow. Three months went by, from October to December, before a final assault commenced to penetrate the center of Ramadi. The operation began on December 22, and ISIS's HQ fell on December 27, five days later. The slow pace was most likely due to first - preparing the Iraqi forces for the final push, and second - doing so with minimal civilian casualties.[2]

And it wasn’t until mid-November 2015 that Iraq’s military forces had finally advanced on three fronts to clear the city of Ramadi. This initial progress took place as Kurdish forces declared victory over ISIS in the northern town of Sinjar.[3]

On December 20, 2015, while Ramadi was under control of IS militants, Iraqi military planes dropped leaflets, on the city, asking residents to leave within 72 hours. Iraqi security forces also used loudspeakers to urge civilians to head toward the advancing troops, before giving the go ahead for air strikes from a U.S.-led coalition on residential blocks still held by the militants. "Warplanes do not strike any target in central Ramadi unless they are sure there are no civilians nearby," said an Iraqi officer.[4] The government claimed that most civilian residents of the city were able to evacuate before it launched its assault.[5]

After encircling the city for weeks, the ISF began a major operation to penetrate central Ramadi on December 22, 2015. An element lead by the Counter-Terrorism Service (CTS) entered Ramadi from al-Humaira area south of Ramadi, into the city’s southern neighborhoods. A separate CTS force entered from Ta’mim area, southwest of Ramadi, into al-Haouz neighborhood in southern Ramadi using a pontoon bridge, as all of Ramadi’s bridges had been heavily damaged. Iraqi forces had cleared bombs planted by ISIS in Ta’mim.[6] Formations from the 8th Iraqi Army (IA) Division, local police, and Anbar tribal fighters also entered the city.[7]

The Iraqi military launched the final push to seize the Central Administration complex on December 27, 2015.

The Islamic State had an esti­mated force of about 400 fighters to defend central Ramadi. It is not clear how many were killed and how many were able to pull back to positions outside the city.[8] 

Iraqi officers claimed that ISIS militants used civilians as human shields to escape when it became clear their last stand in Ramadi was doomed. A senior officer in the counter-terrorism service that spearheaded the fighting in Ramadi told AFP that ISIS had driven many of its vehicles and weapons out of the city before the battle began.[9]

In Ramadi, the Iraq Special Operations Forces (ISF), a highly trained force which once acted independently from the rest of the Army, pushed into the city in conjunction with regular army forces. That was something that the unit’s commander, Maj. Gen Fadhil Jalil al-Barwari, said makes for a better overall fighting force and allows for the armed forces to act autonomously rather than have to rely heavily on outside entities (Iran-backed Shi'ite militias) in combat.[10]

In previous battles, including the recapture of Saddam Hussein's home city Tirkit in April 2015, the Iraqi government relied on Iran-backed Shi'ite militias for ground fighting, with its own army in a supporting role.[11]

Ramadi was recaptured by the Iraqi army itself, and partly by Sunni tribesmen whom American troops had trained to fight alongside the forces of the Shiite-dominated government.[12]

The Iraqi government chose not to use the powerful Shia-dominated paramilitary force that helped it regain the northern city of Tikrit, to avoid increasing sectarian tensions with the mainly Sunni population of Ramadi.

For the first time ever, F-16 fighter jets flown by Iraqi pilots in the Iraqi Air Force had carried out strikes on ISIS positions. Their participation may have been infinitesimal in comparison to US-piloted airstrikes, but nonetheless the fact that there is an Iraqi Air Force to speak of is significant.[13]

The Iraqi authorities did not divulge any casualty figures for the federal forces, but medics said close to 100 wounded troops were brought to Baghdad hospitals on December 27, 2015 alone.

The UN said 124 civilians were killed in Anbar Province but it could not fully verify the Anbar figures due to the increased volatility of the situation on the ground and the disruption of services.[14]

The U.S involvement

The United States is leading a coalition with European countries and major Arab states that has been striking ISIS targets from the air, while a central challenge has been rebuilding the Iraqi army into a force capable of capturing and holding territory on the ground.

Col. Steven H. Warren, the United States military spokesman in Baghdad, said the American-led coalition had conducted, as part of the Ramadi campaign, more than 630 airstrikes since July, including three on December 27, 2015 that hit 18 targets.[15]

The US-led coalition announced on December 29, 2015, that its air strikes had killed 10 "leadership figures" in ISIS in December alone, including two militants linked to the November Paris attacks.

Ramadi – the day after

Iraqi officials described widespread destruction in Ramadi from months of fighting. They said 80 percent of Ramadi had been destroyed with more than 3,000 homes ruined, and roadside bombs and other explosive devices strewn across the city.[16]

A key part of the strategy for the government is to put Ramadi in the hands of American-trained Sunni tribesmen and local Sunni tribal figures. This plan is reminiscent of the 2006-2007 "surge" campaign by U.S. forces at the height of the 2003-2011 U.S. war in Iraq, in which Washington secured the help of Sunni tribes against a precursor of ISIS.[17]   The force is meant to buttress Ramadi and prevent Islamic State militants from returning.

Iraq's most senior Shia cleric, Ali al-Sistani, whose strong backing for the campaign against ISIS has helped rally Shias behind Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi's government, called for local tribes to be recruited to help prevent ISIS fighters from returning to recaptured areas.

"Bringing home the displaced people should be done according to a mechanism," said a sermon read out by Sistani's representative Sheikh Abdul Mahdi al-Karbalai in the holy Shia city of Kerbala.[18]

"Security forces, together with the residents of these areas and the tribes, should collaborate to ensure that the terrorist gangs cannot return again and form sleeper cells that constitute a danger."[19]

Provincial police chief Brigadier Hadi Rizaiyj said police were investigating males who remained behind in Ramadi to determine whether they had links with ISIS.[20]

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon offered to help Iraq restore basic services to Ramadi and allow refugees to quickly return to the city after it was recaptured from militants. Ban made the offer during a telephone conversation with Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi. Describing the recapture of Ramadi as "an important victory," Ban "stressed the need for measures to be taken to restore the rule of law as well as basic services in Ramadi as to allow for the return of internally displaced persons as soon as possible."[21]

The Islamic State group continued to launch a series of deadly attacks against Iraqi government forces on the edges of the western city of Ramadi, days after they were driven out of the city center.

On December 30, 2015, 60 Iraqi government and allied fighters were killed in an attack by the ISIS fighters north of Ramadi.[22]

The latest attacks on January 2, 2016 killed at least 11 members of the Iraqi security forces. Brigadier-General Ahmed al-Belawi told the Associated Press news agency that ISIS struck security forces with a series of car bombs in two areas on the city's outskirts. Belawi said the troops repelled the attacks and did not lose territory.[23]

Summary

The Iraqi victory in Ramadi, which was captured by ISIS fighters in May 2014, was by far the biggest success for Iraq's army since it fled in the face of the fighters' lightning advance across a third of Iraq in 2014.

The fall of Ramadi is the latest in a string of defeats for the Islamic State. In recent months, the Islamic State has had to withdraw from the town of Sinjar, in northwest Iraq, near the Syrian border, and the cities of Tikrit and Baiji, in the “Sunni triangle” north of Baghdad. The group has lost as much as 40 percent of the Iraqi territory it conquered last year.[24] Controlling and governing population centers and key infrastructure is important to ISIS's claim to statehood, and these losses chip away at the credibility of that claim.

In Ramadi, U.S. and Iraqi officers excluded Kurdish and Shiite militias to avoid aggravating sectarian and ethnic tensions. Instead, U.S. advisers helped train a thousand-strong force of local Sunni tribal fighters who can help hold territory taken by the military.[25]

If Iraqi forces could maintain control of the entire city of Ramadi, ISIS would suffer a serious strategic defeat and ISIS control of Fallujah, located between Ramadi and Baghdad, would likely be threatened if the supply route from Ramadi was cut off.[26]

The victory in Ramadi has been hailed as a turning point by the Iraqi government, which says its restored army will soon march on Islamic State's other strongholds, Fallujah and Mosul by far the largest population center controlled by ISIS in either Iraq or Syria .

The Ramadi victory was both strategic and symbolic, but the war with ISIS is not nearly over. ISIS remains capable of launching attacks across Iraq, and Iraqi security forces will be battling ISIS for the foreseeable future.

After the fall of Ramadi, credible reports indicate that ISIS’s morale is eroding and ISIS will be looking for a “win” to offset its defeat in Ramadi. This increases the danger of terrorist attacks against Western targets, since such attacks represent easy and cost effective wins for ISIS.

Notes


[1] Iraq PM: 2016 will be the year of victory over ISIL, Al Jazeera, December 29, 2015.

[2] Ibrahim al Marashi, How Iraq recaptured Ramadi and why it matters, Al Jazeera, January 3, 2016.

[3] Iraqi military advances on ISIS-held Ramadi, Al Arabiya, November 13, 2015.

[4] Terrified families emerge from rubble after battle of Ramadi, Ahram Online, January 1, 2016.

[5] Iraqi forces ask residents of ISIS-held Ramadi to evacuate city, Al Arabiya , December 20, 2015.

[6] Iraq forces retake large part of Ramadi from ISIS, Al Arabiya , December 8, 2015.

[7] Patrick Martin, Ramadi control map, Institute for the study of war, December 22, 2015.

[8] Iraqi forces ask residents of ISIS-held Ramadi to evacuate city, Al Arabiya , December 20, 2015.

[9] Back-to-back losses in Iraq and Syria deal blow to ISIS, Ahram Online, December 29, 2015.

[10] Ben Kesling and Matt Bradely, Victory Marks Turn around for Iraq Army, Wall Street Journal, December 28, 2015.

[11] Images show inside former ISIS stronghold Ramadi, Al Arabiya , December 28, 2015.

[12] Falih Hassan and Sewell Chan, Iraqi Victory Over ISIS in Ramadi Could Prove Pivotal, The New York Times, December 29, 2015.

[13] Ibrahim al Marashi, How Iraq recaptured Ramadi and why it matters, Al Jazeera, January 3, 2016.

[14] Iraq death toll mounts amid battle for Ramadi, Al Jazeera, January 1, 2016.

[15] Falih Hassan and Sewell Chan, Iraqi Victory Over ISIS in Ramadi Could Prove Pivotal, The New York Times, December 29, 2015.

[16] Iraq: 80 percent of Ramadi in ruins after fighting, Al Jazeera, December 31, 2015.

[17] Terrified families emerge from rubble after battle of Ramadi, Ahram Online, January 1, 2016.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ibid.

[21] UN offers to help Iraqi refugees return to Ramadi, Ahram Online, December 30, 2015.

[22] Iraq death toll mounts amid battle for Ramadi, Al Jazeera, January 1, 2016.

[23] ISIL counterattacks target Iraqi troops in Ramadi, Al Jazeera, January 2, 2016.

[24] Falih Hassan and Sewell Chan, Iraqi Victory Over ISIS in Ramadi Could Prove Pivotal, The New York Times, December 29, 2015.

[25] Ben Kesling and Matt Bradely, Victory Marks Turn around for Iraq Army, Wall Street Journal, December 28, 2015.

[26] Sarah Kalinovsky, Why Ramadi Victory Is Key in the Fight Against ISIS, ABC News, December 28, 2015.