After months of fighting for control of Ramadi, the capital of Iraq's largest province, the army of the so-called Islamic State scored a major coup over the weekend.
Militants used at least half a dozen suicide car-bombers and armored bulldozers to clear the path into the center of the city, where the remnants of the government's presence had been living under siege for months. Iraqi forces were sent fleeing for their lives.
The official US position has been that IS is on the run in Iraq, in part thanks to US-led airstrikes. On Friday, Brig. Gen. Thomas Weidly, who is in charge of the US military effort in the country, repeatedly told reporters that the group is in a weakened state. "We will see episodic temporary successes," he said. But "these typically don't materialize into long-term gains. We've seen similar attacks in Ramadi over the last several months of which the ISF [Iraqi Security Forces] has been able to repel. And we see this one being similar to those, where the ISF will eventually take back the terrain that's been lost at this point."
It's hard, however, to square this assessment with events on the ground, or the fact that IS has occupied Iraq's second largest city of Mosul for nearly a year. And while Baghdad may again retake Ramadi, a hot-bed of resistance since shortly after the US invasion of the country in 2003, the cost may prove very high in what is an overwhelmingly Sunni Arab city and its surrounding province.
The foundations for the Islamic State's gains in Iraq was laid by the marginalization of the country's Sunni Arab minority since 2003. It's no coincidence that IS gains have all been in Sunni-majority areas. The Sunni Arab tribes in places like Anbar have been caught between a rock and a hard place for over a decade. In its latest iteration the choice is between IS (preceded by Al Qaeda in Iraq) and a Shiite Arab-dominated government in Baghdad.
A turning point in Ramadi, which lies 70 miles west of Baghdad, was then Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's reaction in Dec. 2013 to Sunni Arab protesters who were demanding greater autonomy from the central government. Mr. Maliki branded them as "Al Qaeda" and sent troops to the city to violently break up the protest encampment and to arrest a prominent Sunni Arab lawmaker, Ahmed al-Alwany. In the raid to arrest him six people were killed, including Mr. Alwany's brother.
Few options for Sunni tribes
In hindsight, that was the opening move in a conflict that 17 months later has put Islamic State in charge of most of the province. But while there's some support for IS among Anbar's Sunni tribes, there's also fear and anger. In 2013 and 2014 IS carried out a wave of assassinations against tribal notables who had worked with Baghdad – or with US troops during the last war.
The Anbaris are no more interested in being ruled by the brutal jihadis of IS than they are in being ruled by Baghdad. But they've been given few options. For over a year, Sunni leaders in Anbar have urged the government to hand out weapons and money so that they can fight for themselves. But Maliki's successor, Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, is reluctant to empower a Sunni militia on Baghdad's doorstep.
And now the chances of real sectarian confrontation in Anbar are going up. In response to the rout in Ramadi, Iraq is rushing Shiite militias into Anbar, as Reuters reports:
"Hashid Shaabi forces reached the Habbaniya base and are now on standby," said the head of the Anbar provincial council, Sabah Karhout. They were fully equipped and highly capable, the council said.
An eyewitness described a long line of armored vehicles and trucks mounted with machine guns and rockets, flying the yellow flags of Kataib Hezbollah, one of the militia factions, heading towards the base about 30 km (20 miles) from Ramadi...
Islamic State said it had seized tanks and killed "dozens of apostates", its description for members of the Iraqi security forces. An eyewitness in Ramadi said bodies of policemen and soldiers lay in almost every street, with burnt-out military vehicles nearby.
It's possible that these Shiite militias – which tend to view the country's Sunni Arabs as traitors – will conduct their offensive on Ramadi with respect and restraint. But Iraq's recent history argues that great danger lies ahead.
In 2005, I was traveling with a company of US Marines in Anbar. One day at a small forward base near the town of Hit, the colonel in charge told me with some pleasure that a group of soldiers from the new Iraqi army had just arrived on the base to help in the fight for Anbar. He said it would be great to get more Iraqis involved and show that the battle was an Iraqi effort, not an American one.
I went over to the end of the compound where the Iraqi troops were staying and chatted with a few of them, who said they were all from the city of Basra in the Shiite dominated south. It was not surprising when word came in the next day that the new troops had set fire to Sunni Arab cars at a nearby checkpoint.
The Obama administration's strategy for Iraq, such as it is, has been built around a belief that a long-promised political reconciliation will happen under Abadi's rule, as Sunni Arabs see they have a reasonable future. So far, there have been no signs of that happening. Many of Ramadi's notables must be feeling a sense of déjà vu.
Ramadi was the center of the so called Anbar "awakening" towards the end of the last decade, when Sunni tribes turned on Al Qaeda and aligned themselves with the US and Baghdad, in exchange for promises of government jobs and better treatment down the road. Those promises were betrayed soon after the initial US pullout from Iraq in 2011, with Maliki quickly pursuing politically motivated prosecutions against senior Sunni Arab politicians.
The failure to make Ramadi's defense a priority, and the refusal to help locals form powerful militias like the Shiite ones that have been so important to Baghdad's war effort north of the capital, is unlikely to have increased trust in the central government. And it just may show that it's time for the US to reassess its strategy and aims in Iraq.