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Islamic State’s Capture of Ramadi May Signal Larger Role for Iraq’s Militias as Conflict Continues

Experts say the spectacular defeat of Iraqi security forces on Sunday could cement Washington and Baghdad's reliance on Shia militias and their Iranian backers in the fight against the militants.
May 19, 2015, 9:05am
Photo via AP

On Friday, two days before Iraqi security forces fled Ramadi by the thousands in a spectacular defeat at the hands of Islamic State militants, Brig. Gen. Thomas D. Weidley, chief of staff of the US-led coalition in Iraq, told reporters the impending capture of the provincial capital was one of the extremist group's "episodic temporary successes."

"The ISF will eventually take back the terrain that's been lost at this point," Weidley said, referring to the Iraqi Security Forces.

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But the fall of Ramadi, the capital of Anbar, Iraq's largest province, has called into question the overall effectiveness of efforts to defeat the militants, and experts say it could cement Washington and Baghdad's reliance on Shia militias and their Iranian backers as the conflict continues.

Fighters from the Islamic State (IS), also known as ISIS, ISIL or Daesh, decisively seized control of Ramadi, a major city located about 75 miles west of Baghdad, on Sunday. American officials, who in recent days have insisted that the militants are still on the defensive, found themselves scrambling to reframe what appeared to be a resolute failure of coalition airstrikes and Iraqi forces to keep the city from falling.

On Monday, Pentagon spokesperson Col. Steven Warren characterized the debacle as a "setback," and insisted Ramadi would be retaken.

Related: Islamic State Seizes Control of Ramadi to Claim Major Victory in Iraq

Fawaz Gerges, a professor of international relations at the London School of Economics, told VICE News the capture of Ramadi was particularly alarming given the host of enemies lined up against the militants, including the supposedly superior airpower of the Americans.

"ISIS has not just won the capital of Anbar, ISIS has seized the narrative," Gerges said.

A spokesman for the governor of Anbar estimated on Monday that 500 people, among them civilians and Iraqi soldiers, had been killed in Ramadi. Also on Monday, the UN said nearly 25,000 people have fled the city. The UN's Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said in a statement that most of the displaced Iraqis were headed east toward Baghdad, where many were encountering military checkpoints. It is unclear how many displaced people have been let into the Iraqi capital.

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Videos showed dozens of military vehicles speeding out of Ramadi, recalling the fall of Mosul last summer, when the militants expanded their control over large swaths of northern and western Iraq. Just as in Mosul, IS was able to capture a trove of military equipment — much of it American supplied — left behind in Ramadi by the Iraqi military.

Since taking office in September, the government of Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has overseen a response to IS that relies heavily on — and delicately balances — the combined force of US-led airstrikes and Iranian-backed Shia militias. During the American occupation of Iraq, many of the same Shia militias battled US forces.

Iranian Defense Minister Hossein Dehghan arrived in Baghdad on Monday to meet with Iraqi officials.

Related: Under Siege in Ramadi

Last summer, following Iraq's embarrassing defeat at the hands of a numerically inferior IS force, the commander of Iran's elite Quds Force, Qasem Suleimani, landed in Iraq to help oversee Tehran's intervention in the country. Iran has numerous high-level advisors in Iraq assisting Abadi's military, as well as its own boots on the ground, mostly in the form of Tehran's Revolutionary Guard.

Iran is a predominantly Shia nation, and Ariane Tabatabai, a professor at Georgetown University's security studies program, said the Iranian public heavily supported Tehran's involvement in Iraq's campaign against the Sunni extremists, who viewed Shias as infidels.

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"Iraq is right next door, and given what ISIS has been doing and the level of stress, Iranians are much more united on that [Iraq] than on any other conflict," Tabatabai told VICE News, comparing the situation to Iran's support of Hezbollah militants in Lebanon, and, to a lesser extent, Houthi rebels in Yemen.

On Monday, thousands of militia members reportedly began mobilizing in anticipation of an offensive to retake Ramadi. Abadi and the Americans have balked at involving militias in Anbar, where the province's Sunni population is already largely alienated from what it sees as hostile, Shia-led government in Baghdad.

Iraq's defeat in Ramadi only underscored the role Shia militias and Iranian forces would play if the losses of the last year were to be recouped, Gerges said.

"Iran is now going to tell al-Abadi 'We told you so,' that you cannot rely on American advice, that you have to rely on your own people and assets, and that you have to rely on the al-Hashd al-Shaabi,"he said, referring to the Popular Mobilization Forces made up of Shia militias. "Iran is in the driver's seat."

Gerges said it was now clear that American airstrikes, which were deployed widely in the vicinity of Ramadi in the days before the city fell, were not the silver bullet to defeating IS. He predicted, however, that the militias would eventually retake Ramadi.

"If al-Hashd al-Shaabi goes and liberates Ramadi, it does not help Abadi," Gerges said. "It helps Iran, and more Iraqis will say thank you to Iran, not thank you to the United States."

Follow Samuel Oakford on Twitter: @samueloakford