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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 10 December 2018

Can Iraqi forces drive ISIL out of Anbar?

The slow progress gives ISIL time to strengthen its defences, exposing the weaknesses of the military fighting the Sunni extremist group, writes Florian Neuhof
Iraqi security forces, backed by Sunni and Shiite volunteers take combat positions during clash with ISIL militants at the front line in Ramadi, Anbar province Anbar province. AP Photo
Iraqi security forces, backed by Sunni and Shiite volunteers take combat positions during clash with ISIL militants at the front line in Ramadi, Anbar province Anbar province. AP Photo

ERBIL // Iraqi government forces and allied militia are struggling to make headway almost two months into a campaign to retake the key cities of Ramadi and Fallujah, casting further doubt on their ability to rid the country of ISIL.

Despite vastly outnumbering the extremist militants, Iraqi forces have taken a cautious approach, working their way through the countryside of Anbar province against determined resistance to encircle the two cities first.

However, the slow progress gives ISIL time to strengthen its defences, and once more exposes the weaknesses of the military and the Shiite militia units that have taken a big role in fighting the Sunni extremist group.

When the campaign was launched on July 13, prime minister Haider Abadi’s government saw victory in Ramadi and Fallujah as a first step towards retaking all of Anbar, paving the way for the liberation of Mosul and the total defeat of ISIL in Iraq, but these goals now seem far-fetched.

“At best, for the foreseeable future I only see a reversion to the prior status quo where neighbourhoods of Ramadi are repeatedly contested, and the same scenario for Fallujah if parts of it can be retaken at all,” said Aymenn Al Tamimi, a fellow at the Washington-based Middle East Forum think tank.

While Fallujah was one of the first cities to fall when ISIL surged across the Syrian border in June last year, government forces held out in Ramadi until this May. The abrupt withdrawal of some of the army’s best fighting units from the city led the US-led coalition backing Iraq in its fight against ISIL to further downgrade its assessment of the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF).

Stretched and under-equipped after the collapse of four army divisions in Mosul last year, the ISF are struggling to cope with a nimble and fanatical enemy.

ISIL units are highly mobile, and able to exploit their hold on Anbar’s hinterland to reinforce their front lines where needed, Mr Al Tamimi said. Their speed of movement also allows them to launch rapid counter-attacks that catch their opponents off guard.

The extremists’ firepower is greatly enhanced by a seemingly endless supply of suicide bombers, often at the wheel of heavily armoured vehicles packed with explosives. The militants leave behind improvised explosive devices when they retreat, slowing the advance of government forces.

“The tremendous number of the roadside bombs, booby traps and car bombs that ISIL has planted on the roads and streets, and in houses and buildings, make it hard to advance without removing them,” said Ismael Alsodani, a retired Iraqi brigadier general who now lives in the US.

On August 27, an ISIL car bomb attack killed two Iraqi generals north of Ramadi. The officers had been leading a unit trying to encircle the city, which the army has so far failed to achieve.

The Popular Mobilisation Units, the disjointed array of Shiite militia groups that are also known as the Hashed Al Shaabi, have likewise failed to complete their objective of surrounding Fallujah.

They are hampered by their sectarian make-up, which does not sit well with Anbar’s mainly Sunni population.

Iraqi Sunnis had been subjected to years of discrimination under the Shiite-led government of former prime minister Nouri Al Maliki, which deepened the country’s sectarian divide and fostered resentment that ISIL has been able to exploit.

The Hashed have promised to incorporate Sunni units into their ranks, but there has been little evidence of this.

Kareem Nori, a spokesman for Badr Brigades, a prominent Shiite militia, told The National in June that thousands of Sunni fighters would assist in the liberation of Fallujah, a claim that has yet to be proven.

This is due in part to the leadership of the Sunni tribes being in disarray, experts say.

ISIL has killed or discredited many of the leaders who backed a US military campaign to rid Anbar of Al Qaeda in 2007, thus destroying traditional hierarchies and creating power vacuums. Some tribes sympathise with the extremist group after harsh treatment at the hands of the government.

“The Iraqi Sunnis have their own challenges in fighting ISIL,” said Ahmed Ali, a researcher at the Institute of Regional and International Studies at the American University of Iraq, Sulaimania.

Some observers such as Mr Alsodani, the retired general, say slow progress does not mean the Anbar campaign is a failure. ISIL is being pegged back in the province preventing the group from launching attacks on Baghdad of the Shiite holy cities of Najaf, Karbala and Samarra.

There is however also logic to Mr Abadi’s reaction to the fall of Ramadi in May, when he ordered an immediate counterattack before being persuaded to adopt the current drawn out approach.

“The basic strategy is sound but its slow pace does not serve the objective of weakening ISIL. It has been clear since the fall of Mosul that the longer ISIL controls an area, the more difficult it becomes to dislodge it,” said Mr Ali.

foreign.desk@thenational.ae