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Shiite militias are massing in an attempt to retake the Iraqi provincial capital of Ramadi, which forces of the self-declared Islamic State seized over the weekend in the group's biggest victory of the year to date.
A spokesman for the Shiite militias – which have been coordinating with Iraqi forces, the US-led coalition providing air support, and Iranian militias –confirmed that they are preparing to deploy near Ramadi on order of the Iraqi government, Reuters reports. "Now that the [militias have] received the order to march forward, they will definitely take part," the spokesman said. "They were waiting for this order and now they have it."
Ramadi, the capital of Anbar Province located about 60 miles west of Baghdad, was overrun by IS troops over the weekend amid heavy fighting. About 500 people were killed and between 6,000 and 8,000 civilians fled the city, the provincial government told Reuters. Anbar provincial council member Athal Fahdawi described the situation as "total collapse."
The city's fall is a major blow to Iraqi government forces and the US. Much like when IS seized Tikrit last year, the group seized a large quantity of military equipment provided to the Iraqi Army by US and Russian backers, reports The New York Times. “ISIS is gaining more weapons, and the battle will be harder in the future,” said one Iraqi soldier who had been stationed in Anbar.
But the deployment of the Shiite militias introduces a new sectarian risk to the largely Sunni province of Anbar. The groups had long been held back from the fighting there for fear that introducing Shiite ground forces would worsen relations with Sunni locals. After long being the dominant power under Saddam Hussein, Iraq's Sunnis have been widely persecuted by the Shiite government. That persecution helped fuel sectarian divides that IS was able to use to make gains in Iraqi territory.
But with Ramadi completely under IS control, the risk of sending Shiites into battle is seen as necessary, The Wall Street Journal reports.
“We were pushed into a corner,” a government official said of the decision to deploy the militias. “This is not the first choice for many people in Anbar.”
The Daily Beast's Jamie Dettmer writes that the fall of Ramadi also deals the Pentagon a significant propaganda blow. Though the Pentagon has argued recently that IS is “on the defensive throughout Iraq and Syria,” the provincial capital's fall shows that the group is still very much an offensive threat.
Scott Atran, an anthropologist who specializes in jihadi organizations, sees what even Iraqi officials acknowledge as the loss of Ramadi as more than just a propaganda boost. He accuses US officials of spinning a dream-world. “US government and Iraqi government forces up until Saturday were saying Ramadi would never fall,” he notes.
He fumes: “Here is a group, attacked on all sides by a wide array of forces and countries, massively outnumbered, with no airpower, and unable to use their artillery because of that, having established a fully functioning state in less than a year, with functioning courts, police, customs, etc., defending a border 3000 km long," continuing: “While the Islamic militants' reach has been limited in Iraq, it appears that these highly mobile Islamic State fighters who are able to switch the direction of their attacks from one side of the Syrian-Iraq border to the other, will now be targeting Syrian Kurdish forces to attract youth from 90 countries. And our government says these are weak, failed, and nihilistic gangs who are burning themselves out.”
Mr. Dettmer notes that while there is debate over whether IS is "fully functioning" as a state, the group has shown that it "strikes back whenever [it] takes a hit both to boost the morale of its own fighters and to give the sense it remains undefeated even when it does suffer defeats."