BAGHDAD — Around 3,000 newly American-trained Iraqi troops, along with 500 trained Sunni tribal fighters, have been deployed to help in an expected government offensive to retake the Sunni stronghold of Ramadi from Islamic State militants, Pentagon officials said during a trip to Baghdad on Thursday.
As Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter huddled with his Iraqi counterparts to discuss the looming assault, Defense Department officials in the delegation insisted, however, that the growing force would not include any Shiite militiamen, many of whom are supported by Iran.
“As of now, the government of Iraq has indicated that they have no intention of using the Shia militias in the liberation of Ramadi,” said Col. Steve Warren, a Pentagon spokesman. But the Shiite militias are apparently participating without American objections in the battles around nearby Falluja, which is just as crucial to controlling the area.
The Iraqi forces suffered a big public relations blow 10 weeks ago after their frenetic retreat from Ramadi, a pivotal western Iraqi city that is the capital of the Sunni Arab heartland of Anbar Province. Since the Islamic State seized Ramadi in May, around 2,000 militant fighters are said to have been building up defenses, including rigging empty buildings with explosives.
Graphic | How ISIS Expands The Islamic State aims to build a broad colonial empire across many countries.
But as the push to begin the Ramadi offensive has grown more urgent in recent days, the Obama administration has applied heavier pressure on the Iraqi government not to include Shiite militiamen — despite the fact that the groups have been among the most effective in fighting the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL.
One major concern is that the militiamen would inflame sectarian tensions in the Sunni-dominated region. Sunnis’ fears about Shiite militiamen have been a big factor in alienating them from the government and in attracting more support to ISIS forces.
Also, American officials appeared to have decided that it was crucial to show that the Iraqi military can take back a major city on its own, minus the militia help.
But there seems to be no similar effort in Falluja, the second city of Anbar, also controlled by the Islamic State. American officials said they expected that Shiite militias would be part of that fight. And earlier this year, the militias were central to the government’s victory in the city of Tikrit.
Making a distinction between Falluja and Ramadi appears to many Iraqis to be an artificial one, a political fig leaf; the battles for both cities are part of a coordinated offensive to take back Anbar Province, and it will be a challenge to hold one without the other. And Falluja, a symbol of Sunni resistance where, in 2004, United States troops fought their biggest urban battle since Vietnam — is arguably an even more volatile place to put Shiite militias.
One spokesman for the popular mobilization committees, as the Shiite militias that expanded and multiplied to fight the Islamic State are known in Iraq, said that militiamen gathering around Falluja saw no roadblocks to their participation.
“There is no interference by the Americans,” said the spokesman, Kareem al-Nouri. “On the contrary, the Americans are supportive of us in our operations.”
Efforts to retake Ramadi, announced on July 13 as part of an overall government offensive to retake Anbar Province, have been slow to develop, even as there has been increasing speculation in the Iraqi and regional news media that American and Iraqi officials were disagreeing over the planning and force lineup for the operation.
As recently as Wednesday, Pentagon officials said that the Ramadi assault force would not include Iraqi forces trained recently by American military advisers. But upon arriving in Baghdad on Thursday, coalition military officials told Mr. Carter that two American-trained Iraqi brigades — each with about 1,500 troops — joined the fight this week. Officials said the forces were focusing on taking the approaches to the city in order to cut off lines of resupply for Islamic State fighters.
American officials also announced that about 500 Sunni tribal fighters who have in recent weeks been trained by members of the American-led coalition against the Islamic State were joining the Ramadi operation — even as Sunni leaders from Anbar complained that far more were ready to fight but that the government did not want them on the front lines.
Colonel Warren portrayed the addition of Sunni tribesman fighters to the Ramadi battlefield as a big step forward. “Participation of Sunni fighters in the battle for Ramadi is exactly what we’ve been talking about, exactly what we’ve been looking for,” he told reporters traveling with Mr. Carter.
Colonel Warren said that one of the newly trained Iraqi Army brigades had advanced about four miles closer to Ramadi in just the past day. “This is an important development because these personnel are well trained and much more well equipped,” he said.
In Baghdad, Mr. Carter met with the Iraqi prime minister, Haider al-Abadi, and Iraqi defense and military officials, and went to see Iraqi counterterrorism troops, in their trademark all-black uniforms, maneuver and fire at silhouette targets at a firing range.
Just before leaving Baghdad, Mr. Carter explained the American strategy in Iraq to members of the United States 82nd Airborne Division stationed in the country as part of the training and assistance force.
“If all there was to this was to beat them once, you could do it,” he said, referring to the Islamic State. “To keep them beaten requires the capable motivated forces here in Iraq.”
An Iraqi war plan that has been shaped by American advisers sent to a Iraqi base east of Ramadi called Al Taqqadum put the number involved in the effort to retake Ramadi at about 6,000 troops. On Thursday, Defense Department officials refused to say how many troops were now on the ground around Ramadi.
The plan calls for an Iraqi follow-on force of up to 5,000 tribal fighters, along with Iraqi provincial police officers to be assigned to hold the city and nearby areas of Anbar Province if they are retaken from the Islamic State.
American military advisers at Al Taqqadum say that so far about 1,800 Sunni fighters have gone through training, Pentagon officials said.
One focus for the Americans is to try to accelerate the integration of Sunni fighters into the Iraqi Army, which is dominated by Shiites.
But Sunni leaders from Anbar say that even though American and Iraqi officials have talked a big game about bringing more Sunnis into the fight for Anbar, in practice it has not yet been well supported.
“We don’t understand what’s going on in Anbar,” said Sheikh Rafa al-Fahdawi, a leader of the Albu Fahad tribe that has helped battle the Islamic State in the province.
Anbar Sunnis who want to fight the Islamic State, he said, are caught between the Americans, who say tribal fighters must work through the Iraqi government, and the government, which gives them “only promises.”
Adding to his frustration, he said, is disappointment that some Sunni tribes have refused to fight the Islamic State and others have sent fewer fighters than expected.
Part of the problem, he said, is the lack of trust between the government and Anbar’s Sunnis after years of violence and political tension.
“That’s why you always see the Anbar fighters in the back and the other fighters in the front,” he said, even though some of his fighters want to fight in the vanguard.
Anne Barnard contributed reporting.
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(via NY Times)