Residents of the central Iraqi city of Ramadi awoke on Thursday to sounds of artillery and explosions, marking the second day of an Islamic State (IS) offensive against the only area of the city that remains under government control.
At least 10 people were killed and more than 60 injured in the city on Wednesday and Thursday as the terror group launched an assault that has included a series of car bombs, with some news outlets reporting nearly two dozen being detonated. Bombings were followed on both days by firefights in which the Iraqi military and local police managed to fend off the militants.
Coalition aircraft led by the United States are stationed nearby at Al Asad Airbase, and US officials confirmed that the coalition responded with one airstrike on Wednesday.
Local reports circulated afterward asserting that the strike hit an Iraqi army headquarters outside of the city, killing Iraqi soldiers rather than IS fighters, but a coalition spokesperson said that its strike on Wednesday did not result in "friendly casualties." It is consulting with Iraqi security forces about the incident.
The head of the Anbar provincial council later said that militants had tunneled beneath the headquarters and detonated hundreds of explosives, and denied that a coalition airstrike had caused the deaths.
What appeared to be more airstrikes were visible on Thursday afternoon, though there was no US confirmation. IS fighters seemed to retreat — or at least the shooting quieted — once the sound of fighter aircraft could be heard above.
Despite a US-led bombing campaign that began in August, IS controls most of western Iraq's Anbar Province. Ramadi, the provincial capital, is largely in the hands of the militants. The group's attempt to capture the rest of the city comes as Iraqi troops and militiamen have dealt IS apparent defeats in Tikrit, on the northeast edge of the area held by IS.
'We don't understand why the Americans won't do more.'
In interviews in Baghdad and Ramadi this week, Iraqi officials said they expect that IS fighters will overrun the portion of Ramadi under government control if the coalition does not provide adequate air support. They also noted that the air campaign in the region had diminished significantly in recent months.
A fire started by a mortar strike burned in the courtyard of the office of Mustafa Ahmed al Jumaili, the lieutenant governor of Anbar, as he arrived at work on Thursday. The second day of a vehicle curfew in the city kept visitors to his office to a minimum.
"We want the US to support us," Al Jumaili told VICE News. "Soon IS might take Ramadi completely."
The part of Ramadi that remains under government control is surrounded by the IS on three sides. Travel between Ramadi and Baghdad requires a circuitous route to avoid Iraq's main east-west highway, which is largely controlled by IS between Baghdad and the Jordanian and Syrian borders.
According to police officials in Ramadi, more than 2,000 police officers have been killed in Anbar since January 2014, when the Islamic State — then known mainly as ISIS or ISIL — first announced its presence in the city. The forensic unit of the Ramadi Teaching Hospital, Anbar's largest, recorded more than 600 civilian deaths in the same period. Those numbers don't include Iraqi soldiers killed in the province, or persons killed in areas under IS control.
Anbar government officials find themselves in an uncomfortable position, trapped between IS and a central government that they complain has largely neglected them. Requests for coalition air support must be routed through Baghdad.
"We don't understand why the Americans won't do more," Al Jumaili said.
VICE News reached out repeatedly to the Department of Defense for comment, but did not hear back. The US Embassy in Baghdad also did not respond to a request for comment.
Residents in the government-held areas of Ramadi expressed frustration on Wednesday and Thursday. The city, which has gone without electricity for much of the past year, has become a hub for refugees from other parts of Anbar who have escaped fighting. Hundreds of thousands of people have already fled Anbar to other parts of Iraq.
Local officials said that 50 of the 61 schools around the city had been converted into housing for the displaced from other parts of Anbar. Schools that are still holding classes are operating on triple shifts.
"We left with nothing when the fighting between the government and Daesh began," a man who lives in what was formerly an elementary school told VICE News, referring to IS by its Arabic acronym.
Refugees in the school said that they had nowhere else to go if IS entered the area, a sentiment echoed by other residents.
"Where can we go?" said one man as he ate dinner at a restaurant in downtown Ramadi on Wednesday. "We will just stay here if they come."
This sentiment was evident throughout government-held Ramadi.
As fighting began on Thursday with the detonation of an IS car bomb shortly after 6 AM, some of the lieutenant governor's security detail feared that their compound might be overrun. If that had happened, one of the men told VICE News, the plan was to shed their military uniforms and "just pretend to be normal people."
The precariousness of the Anbar government reflects Iraq's complexities. After the US invasion in 2003, Ramadi and the nearby city of Falluja were centers of resistance against the US and the government that it helped install, initiating a cycle of violence that has intensified over the last decade.
More American soldiers were killed in Anbar during the occupation than in any other province. Indiscriminate roundups and detentions of Sunni Muslims by the US military fueled antipathy toward the occupation and the Iraqi government.
Anbar is almost entirely populated by Sunni Muslims, and sectarian policies under former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's Shia-dominated Iraqi government exacerbated this resentment, which IS exploited in seizing much of Anbar last year.
Many of the Iraqi army vehicles present in Ramadi flew flags bearing the names and pictures of Shia religious figures, lending credence to the assertion that the term "Iraqi security forces" has become little more than a euphemism for the largely Shia militias now fighting openly in Tikrit and other parts of the country.
Those militias are accused of terrorizing and massacring Sunnis as they have fought, justifying their actions as retaliation for the violent abuses of IS. This is little comfort to people in Ramadi.
As one resident put it to VICE News, "We fear the Iranians more than we fear Daesh."
Additional reporting contributed by Eric Fernandez
Follow David Enders on Twitter: @davidjenders