August 16, 2015

The Fall of Ramadi

Yohannan Chemarapally

THE fall of Ramadi on May 17 has been the biggest military and political setback suffered by the Iraqi government since the fall of Mosul last year. Now the Islamic State (IS) is in full control of two major cities in Iraq. The fall of Ramadi coincided with the capture of the Palmyra in neighbouring Syria by the IS. Approximately half of Syria's territory is now in the hands of the IS. Now with the capture of Ramadi, a large part of Iraq is also now under the sway of the terror outfit which styles itself an Islamic Caliphate. The capture of Ramadi comes soon after the IS was ejected by a joint force of the Iraqi army and Shia militias from the city of Tikrit, another Sunni dominated town and the birthplace of Saddam Hussein. The Iraqi army had even started talking about liberating Mosul, Iraq's second biggest city when the military debacle in Ramadi happened. The liberation of Mosul, a city of over a million people, will now be delayed even further. There are conflicting reports about the events surrounding the humiliating defeat of the Iraqi army in Ramadi. Initial reports said that the IS staged a predawn attack that involved a wave of 24 car bomb suicide attacks. This attack was followed by a wave of 30 suicide bombers attacking the front lines. Other reports suggest that the Iraqi Special forces abandoned their positions in the city without much of a fight leaving their sophisticated equipment, including American supplied tanks and armoured vehicles behind. The Americans claim that the IS launched its attack when a sand storm was buffeting Ramadi. They say that poor visibility prevented the deployment of American air power against the advancing enemy. The Iraqi army had deployed 15 army divisions and its best weaponry in Anbar province where Ramadi is situated. Yet it could not defend the city or retake territory in this Sunni dominated province in central Iraq. The government in Baghdad now holds less than 10 percent of the territory there. Much of the large Anbar province is desert terrain and lightly populated. REFUGEE INFLUX The fall of Ramadi has led to another refugee influx into Baghdad. Thousands of residents from the city have fled, many of them on foot, braving the searing summer heat. The faith of the average Iraqi in his country's armed forces has suffered another serious dent. More than 40,000 refugees were allowed into Baghdad. Others fled to smaller cities. The central government fears that IS suicide bombers may use the refugee influx as a cover to stage attacks in the Iraqi capital. The American Secretary of Defense, Ashton Carter, blamed the fall of Ramadi on the lack of a “will to fight” among Iraqi troops, though they greatly outnumbered the IS forces laying siege on the city. Earlier, the chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Martin Dempsey, had said that the Iraqi forces were not driven out. “They drove out of Ramadi”, he sarcastically commented. The defense secretary's remarks came in for harsh criticism from Iraqi officials. A spokesman for the Iraqi Prime Minister, Haidar al Abadi, said that the defense secretary had “incorrect information” about the situation that was prevailing at the time in Ramadi. An Iraqi army officer fighting on the front line in Anbar province said that his forces had conducted a “tactical withdrawal” from Ramadi. He said that the Iraqi army would prove very soon that the American charges of cowardice under fire were unfounded. Gen. Qassem Soleimani, head of Iran's Revolutionary Guards blamed the United States for not doing anything to stop the IS advance on Ramadi. Observers of the region have said that the United States could have used its air power more effectively to stop the IS advance into Ramadi. The United States and Iran are tacitly cooperating in Iraq in the fight against the IS. This cooperation was evident in the successful bid to retake Tikrit from the IS. The United States used its air power to help the Iranian trained militias to defeat the IS in Tikrit. The Iraqi army is trained and equipped by the Americans at the cost of $22 billion to the US exchequer. The Iraqi army no doubt has to shoulder the major responsibility in the failure to defend major Iraqi cities. Soleimani has said that only Iran and its close allies are really serious about fighting the IS. “Obama has not done a damn thing so far to confront the Daesh. Doesn't that show that there is no will in America to confront it”, Soleimani said, using an Arabic acronym for the IS. American military officials have now admitted that they have not been targeting important IS targets in the cities under their control. The reason they gave was that the US wants to safeguard civilian lives and prevent unnecessary collateral damage. Iraqi officials have said that limited airstrikes have allowed the IS free movement on the battlefield. An Iraqi officer told the NYT that the US did not provide sufficient air support to enable the Iraqi army to confront the IS forces. “We lost large territories in Anbar because of the inefficiencies of the US led coalition air strikes”, he said. US airstrikes against IS targets in Iraq and Syria averaged around 15 a day. In Libya, during the NATO led attack in 2012, there was an average of 50 strikes in the first two months. During the initial stages of the US invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, there was an average of 80 air strikes every day. Since its major battlefield successes in Syria and Iraq since the beginning of the year, the IS has become better armed and highly motivated. As recent battles have shown, the IS is able to deploy hundreds of suicide bombers at short notice. American Vice President Joe Biden has tried to make amends for the statement by the US defense secretary by assuring the Iraqi prime minister that his country will continue to be an ally in the fight against the IS. He also praised the “enormous sacrifice and bravery of the Iraqi forces”. Prime Minister Abadi meanwhile has pledged to liberate Ramadi “within days”. This time, he is relying more on the Iranian trained militias. Thousands of fighters from Shia militias under the banner of Popular Mobilisation Committees along with more than a thousand policemen have started their counter offensive in the last week of May from the city of Habbaniyah, one of the last government controlled cities in Anbar province. The militias are backed by units of the Iraqi army's “Golden Division”. Retaking Ramadi is the top most priority for the Abadi government. The city lies only 110 km from Baghdad. The IS has been loudly claiming that Baghdad is next on its radar. MACHINATIONS OF THE US The deployment of Shia militias on the Ramadi front has come in for criticism from some leading Sunni politicians in Iraq. In fact, it was their vociferous objections which had the support of Washington, which made the Iraqi prime minster decide against their participation in the fight against the IS in many parts of the Sunni dominated Anbar province. Initially, the US had even threatened to not provide air cover if Shia militias were deployed in the fight to liberate Tikrit. The argument being put forward was that the deployment of the Shia forces would further widen the sectarian divide in the country. In the first place, Washington had a big role to play in fostering the sectarian divide as it spearheaded the overthrow of secular regimes in Iraq and Libya. In Syria too, Washington has played the sectarian card to the hilt. The IS itself in a way is the creation of the United States. Before openly flaunting the black banner of global jihad, IS fighters were supported by the West and its regional allies to overthrow the government of Bashar al Assad. Millions of dollars worth of equipment, funded by lavish donors in countries like Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Kuwait were funneled into Syria through the auspices of the Turkish and Jordanian governments. A 2012 US Defense Intelligence Agency assessment stated that Washington and the Gulf monarchies were in favour of a Salafist state covering the eastern part of Syria and the western part of Iraq. After the invasion of Iraq, some influential policy makers in Washington were openly talking of carving up Iraq into three parts – a Shia dominated south, a Sunni populated central part and a Kurd dominated north. Northern Iraq is for all practical purposes already functioning as an independent entity. The Obama administration now plans to arm the Kurd and Sunni militias directly without even bothering to consult the government in Baghdad. The Americans also thought that they would be able to replicate the “Sunni awakening” that they manipulated in 2007 in Anbar province by once again getting on board tribal chiefs. The uprising led by jihadi groups in the last decade was defeated by a combination of military force and money power. At the time, there were thousands of American military boots on the ground. The Sunni Awakening Force fighting alongside the Americans were handsomely compensated. All the same, it took the Americans a long time to recapture the city of Falluja which had fallen into the hands of al Qaeda aligned fighters. Hawkish politicians in America, like the old warmonger, John McCain, are once again calling for the deployment of American troops in Iraq to fight the IS. At the same time, the Obama administration has announced joint plan with Turkey to arm and train anti-Assad militants to fight in Syria. The Syrian government which is facing a major threat from the IS, is being forced to fight on various fronts due to the machinations of Washington and its allies. The IS is having the last laugh.