BAGHDAD — The Iraqi government declared on Monday that it was beginning a major military operation to retake the western province of Anbar from the Islamic State, which occupies much of the area including its major cities, Ramadi and Falluja.
It was not immediately clear if the operation would have more impact than an earlier one that Iraq announced in May, when the Islamic State seized Ramadi, the provincial capital, after holding Falluja for more than a year. Little has changed on the ground since then.
But a barrage of 29 American-led airstrikes near Ramadi on Monday signaled that the United States was strongly backing the operation, a week after President Obama vowed a “long-term campaign” to defeat the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL.
Maj. Roger Cabiness, a Pentagon spokesman, said the American-led coalition was stepping up airstrikes in Anbar Province to match the increased tempo of Iraqi military operations.
“We’ll likely see an increase in coalition airstrikes,” he said.
The United States-led coalition that has been attacking the militants from the air in both Iraq and Syria carried out 39 airstrikes total in Iraq overnight, according to the United States Central Command — more than double the typical daily tally in recent weeks. Iraqiya, the state-run television channel, also reported the airstrikes.
Still, officials cautioned that the operation is only just beginning: The battle to retake the city of Tikrit dragged on for weeks after Iraqi officials said victory was imminent, slowed in part by an array of booby traps left behind by the militants. In Ramadi, around 2,000 ISIS fighters have had two months to build up defenses and wire buildings with bombs, officials said.
“They are in the early stages, mostly securing lines of communication in and out of the city,” a senior United States military official said, speaking about operations around Ramadi on condition of anonymity to discuss confidential details.
A crucial question is whether the offensive has the backing of many players that all view ISIS as an enemy but have tense relations with one another. Within Iraq, that includes Shiite fighters mostly from the south, and some Sunni tribal forces that have fought the group in Anbar. Outside Iraq, the central players include the United States and Iran, the patron of some of the Shiite militias.
The coalition has sometimes, but not always, balked at providing significant air support when militias closely allied with Iran, like many in the popular mobilization committees, have been involved in ground operations.
In announcing that the Anbar operation had begun at dawn, Brig. Gen. Yahya Rasool, a spokesman for the Iraqi security forces’ Joint Operations Command, said that Shiite militias, known as popular mobilization committees, as well as Sunni tribal forces were taking part, alongside regular army forces, special forces and federal policemen.
After years of sectarian conflict, and some recent cases of atrocities by Shiite militias after pushing ISIS out of Sunni areas, some Sunnis so fear the Shiite fighters that they prefer to stick with ISIS rather than have Shiite militias in their towns. But the government lacks an alternative force large enough and willing enough to confront the group. Shiites, for their part, point to the many massacres of Shiites by ISIS and note that other Sunnis have been willing to fight alongside them.
More than a year after the Islamic State group swept into large parts of northern and western Iraq, its fighters remain entrenched, including in Mosul, Iraq’s third largest city. Taking Ramadi tightened the militants’ hold on Anbar, a sprawling desert area that helps them hold Mosul to the north and cross easily into their territory in Syria.
Anbar is a mostly Sunni province that stretches from the Syrian and Jordanian and Saudi Arabian borders to the gates of Baghdad. As a fulcrum of the insurgency against the American occupation, more Americans died in Anbar than in any other part of the country.
Prime Minister Haider Abadi declared on Monday, “We will take revenge on ISIS criminals on the battlefields, and the heroes in the armed forces and the popular mobilization and the tribal fighters are defeating ISIS in one battle after the other.”
A report released by the United Nations on Monday said that Islamic State forces may have committed war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide in continuing and deliberate attacks on Iraqi civilians this year.
The report said more than 3,300 Iraqi civilians were killed and 7,400 injured in the four months from January to April, and that ISIS executed scores of its own fighters for deserting the battlefield. As well, it found that the Islamic State was also deliberately targeting civilians, especially ethnic and religious minorities, in addition to destroying priceless cultural and historical sites and artifacts.
Omar Al-Jawoshy reported from Baghdad and Anne Barnard reported from Beirut, Lebanon. Reporting was contributed by Matthew Rosenberg and Eric Schmitt from Washington and Nick Cumming-Bruce from Geneva, .
Omar Al-Jawoshy reported from Baghdad and Anne Barnard reported from Beirut, Lebanon.
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(via NY Times)