BAGHDAD — Iraqi officials said Tuesday that a combined force of Iraqi soldiers and allied Shiite militias had started moving to retake the city of Ramadi, the capital of Anbar Province, from Islamic State fighters.
The officials billed the operation that began Tuesday as the start of a major offensive to liberate all of Anbar Province. But most of the action reported on Tuesday involved pro-government forces maneuvering in the desert areas north and east of Ramadi, and it was unclear when an assault there might begin.
The loss of Ramadi more than a week ago was a major setback for the Iraqi government and the United States-led air campaign to contain the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL. The city was one of the last major areas where Sunni Arab fighters worked with the army to try to hold out against the Sunni jihadists of ISIS.
In a statement broadcast on state television Tuesday, Iraq’s Defense Ministry, referring to the government umbrella organization for the country’s largely Shiite militias, said, “The operation to liberate Anbar has started with the cooperation of the Iraqi Army and the Popular Mobilization Forces.”
Graphic | How ISIS Expands The Islamic State aims to build a broad colonial empire across many countries.
Any broader campaign for Anbar — Iraq’s Sunni Arab heartland, and a longtime focus of the Islamic State’s ambitions — is likely to be long and bloody.
The difficulties of the campaign were underscored in comments over the weekend by the United States defense secretary, Ashton B. Carter, who said the Iraqi forces in Ramadi had shown “no will to fight” and had fled the battle.
Those comments were harshly received by officials in Baghdad and among soldiers in the field. A combination of Iraqi security forces and allied Sunni tribal fighters had resisted the Islamic State for nearly a year in Ramadi, before ultimately withdrawing in the face of a barrage of suicide attacks.
The pro-government forces in that fight vastly outnumbered the ISIS militants, but Iraqi officials have called the retreat a tactical decision for the exhausted forces to regroup and prepare for a new offensive.
“It was a tactical retreat from Ramadi,” said Col. Fakhry Abdullah, who leads a unit of Iraqi Army soldiers manning mortar positions in Garma, a front-line town in Anbar. Referring to Mr. Carter’s comments, Colonel Abdullah added, “In the coming days, we will prove to him that he was wrong and we were right.”
Even so, the performance of the Iraqi security forces so far, along with Mr. Carter’s comments, raised questions about the United States’ strategy for fighting the Islamic State.
The United States has been training Iraqi Army recruits since December, although none of the soldiers trained so far have entered the battle. At the same time, American officials have pushed Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi to increase aid to the Sunni tribes who were fighting ISIS in Anbar, and to avoid sending Shiite militiamen into that fight, fearing that it could intensify sectarian hostilities.
But Sunni tribesman around Ramadi complained for weeks that government aid and reinforcements were too slow, and now the Shiite militias are taking a central role in preparing for an offensive in Anbar.
In the days since Ramadi’s fall, the United States has eased its line on the use of Shiite militias, saying it would still provide air support for a militia-led campaign in Anbar as long as the Shiite groups remain firmly under the control of Mr. Abadi’s government.
The operation that began Tuesday was taking place partly in Salahuddin Province, to take areas north and east of Ramadi before pushing into Anbar, said Ahmed al-Assadi, the spokesman for the Popular Mobilization Forces. The operation, he said, was named for a revered Shiite religious figure, Imam Hussein, which signified the crucial role the Shiite militias are now playing in the security of the country.
Falih Hassan contributed reporting.
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(via NY Times)