In Ramadi battle, a potential model for rolling back ISIS

The battle to retake Ramadi is being led by the Iraq Army, not sectarian militias. In a country where the Islamic State has exploited sectarian tensions, that could be an important moment. 

Iraqi soldiers plant the national flag over a government building in Ramadi Monday.

If the Iraqi forces now advancing toward the heart of Ramadi are able to wrest the strategic and psychologically important city from Islamic State, the impact could be significant both in the Iraqi Security Forces and within Iraq’s Sunni community.

It could also provide evidence that the Obama administration’s strategy for defeating the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria – which Defense Secretary Ashton Carter defined as “Raqqa, Ramadi, and raids” – is starting to work.

Iraqi Army commanders said Wednesday their forces have cleared large swaths of Ramadi, are fighting street-by-street, and could fully recapture the city within days. The fight for Ramadi is advancing with significant United States air support and with special counterterrorism units trained by US forces deployed in Iraq.

Depending on how Ramadi is taken back and then secured, the victory could provide a big morale boost to Iraqi forces that were pushed out of the city by Islamic State fighters in May. At the same time, it could provide reassurances to Iraq’s Sunni population about the aims of the country’s Shiite majority.

Ramadi, which is only about 60 miles from Baghdad, is the capital of Iraq’s Sunni-majority al-Anbar Province. Baghdad, by contrast, is Shiite-dominated.

If Iraqi military commanders retake and hold Ramadi, it would mark the first major victory achieved by regular Iraqi Army soldiers and elite US-trained special forces without backing from either Kurdish Peshmerga or Iran-backed Shiite militias.

In the ongoing attempt to defuse Iraq’s sectarian tensions, that could be a landmark moment. It could also be used as a model to push the Islamic State out of other parts of the country, some Iraq experts say.

“If a nonsectarian force can defeat ISIS and prove to be a force the population can rally behind, then Ramadi could be a template for taking back other areas of Iraq,” says Nicholas Heras, a Middle East research associate at the Center for a New American Security in Washington.

Those could include other parts of Anbar and “eventually Mosul,” Iraq’s second-largest city and long a hotbed of Sunni resistance to Shiite-majority rule, Mr. Heras says.

Militias on the sidelines

Iraqi military commanders are keeping the Shiite militias on the sidelines, in part to avoid potential clashes with Sunni civilians. Shiite militias abused Sunni locals when they recaptured the town of Tikrit from the Islamic State earlier this year, some say.

Also of significance, the Iraqi military is using Sunni tribal fighters to secure and hold liberated parts of Ramadi. The Iraqi government has been loath to trust Sunni tribes in the past, despite their value in Sunni areas like al-Anbar Province.  

“The most useful people in any major operation against ISIS are going to be the scattered [Sunni] tribes that have remained loyal” and resisted the Islamic State’s call to Sunni Muslims, says Wayne White, a former State Department Iraq analyst. “Putting the tribes in there and empowering them is essential if you really want to build trust with the Sunni populations.”    

But as significant as retaking Ramadi would be, Mr. White cautions that it will be difficult to replicate the success across Iraq.

Complications remain

For one thing, Iraqi Security Forces have largely become Shiite forces, given that the Islamic State controls the Sunni areas that could be used for recruiting.

“The recruiting base is now something like 85 percent Shia, and that’s just one of the factors hindering the government from building a balanced army,” says White, who is now an adjunct scholar with the Middle East Institute in Washington.

The government of Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi still isn’t providing Sunni tribal fighters with promised weaponry, he adds. This despite the Sunni tribes’ demonstrated resistance to the Islamic State onslaught.

Even if Shiite militias are largely kept out of the offensive, it will be crucial to prevent them from sweeping and inciting confrontations with Sunnis after the fall, White says.

More broadly, Iraq’s Shiite-dominated government continues to resist the political power-sharing reforms needed to bury hypersectarian tensions.

“The Shiite leadership still largely believes they can get the job [of pushing the Islamic State out of Iraq] done without throwing any bones to the Sunni communities,” White says. “As long as they hold to that thinking, any real progress is going to be difficult.”

The Mosul problem

Likewise, Heras predicts a “long and difficult road ahead” for the battle against the Islamic State in Iraq, even if Ramadi provides a “blueprint” for moving forward.

“Success in Ramadi would pretty quickly turn thoughts to taking back Mosul, but that will be much more difficult because the Mosul problem is not so much military as political,” says Heras.

“Long the beating heart of Sunni Iraqi resistance and the main holdout against Shia Baghdad,” Mosul will need more persuading, he says.

“I can see success in Ramadi becoming the discussion point that gets the most powerful Sunni voices to spur on an effort to take back Mosul,” Heras says. “But you’re not going to get the key local actors” – the equivalent of the Sunni tribes around Ramadi – “on board without a change in political atmosphere in Baghdad.”

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