The fall of Ramadi, the capital of Iraq’s Sunni heartland, to forces of the Islamic State (IS) is a serious setback to the government in Baghdad and to US-led efforts to “degrade and destroy” the radical Islamist group.
But as grim as the picture is coming out of central Iraq, there is also a glimmer of a development suggesting how Iraq might yet push back IS and avoid a descent into a deeper, unity-threatening sectarian conflict.
On Monday, thousands of Shiite militiamen were assembling at an Iraqi army base east of Ramadi preparing a battle to retake the city, after Iraqi forces, backed by US airstrikes, failed Sunday to hold onto it. The entry into the fight of the Iran-backed militias was approved by Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, who initially resisted their involvement in hopes that Iraqi Army forces could hold Ramadi, the capital of Anbar province.
The militias are also moving in with the blessing of Anbar’s majority-Sunni provincial council and Sunni tribal leaders – raising the prospect that a combination of Shiite militiamen, Sunni tribesmen, and government forces could retake the city.
Such a possibility is fraught with all kinds of potential dangers, from sectarian fighting among groups presumably working toward the same goal to the threat of cleansing operations by Shiite forces in the Sunni city once the fighting was over.
But a victory against IS by the three fighting groups – Shiite, Sunni, government – could also help pull Iraq back from the brink of a sectarian civil conflict like the one entering its fifth year in neighboring Syria, some regional experts say.
“There’s no getting around that the fall of Ramadi is a total disaster, it’s not going to be easily reversed, and it offers a pretty alarming picture of how well IS is able to execute large-scale military operations,” says Henri Barkey, a former State Department Iraq analyst who is now a professor of international relations at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pa. “But it would also be a good sign if the [Shiite] militias manage to retake the city with some degree of Sunni involvement and cooperation.”
Playing on an old expression, he says, “The proof will be in the behaving” – specifically, in how the Shiite militiamen conduct themselves and operations in the largely Sunni city, which is about a 1-1/2-hour drive west of Shiite-ruled Baghdad.
“The coming battle could end up something of a positive, but only in the event of three very critical ‘ifs,’ ” Professor Barkey says: “if [the militias] are successful without inflicting a large amount of damage on the city, if they don’t ransack the city, and if they prove to be gallant in their actions towards Sunnis and act as Iraqi forces instead of what they really are, which is Shia forces.”
Iraq could use an example of “sectarian cooperation” he says.
Anbar has been under threat of IS takeover since the group first swept into northern Iraq and seized the country’s second-largest city, Mosul, in June 2014. As recently as last week, Mr. Abadi pledged that Ramadi would not fall, but IS's combination of suicide shock troops and well-trained fighters proved unstoppable.
Iraq, Barkey notes, increasingly resembles war-ravaged Syria, where the government of President Bashar al-Assad, an Alawite Muslim (a Shiite sect), holds Damascus and a few other areas, with much of the rest of the country under either IS or moderate Sunni control.
“In Iraq, it’s getting to where the government controls Baghdad and the south and a few other areas,” Barkey says.
One of those areas is the city of Tikrit in Salahaddin, another largely Sunni province in northern Iraq. Shiite militias – backed by US airstrikes – managed to wrest Tikrit from IS control at the end of March.
It may be too early to say whether Tikrit could serve as an example of how Ramadi might fare after a Shiite-militia-led victory against IS. The wave of sectarian reprisals that many predicted would follow a Shiite sweep into Tikrit failed to materialize, but at the same time, continuing fears of the militias have discouraged many of the city’s Sunni residents from returning.