Iraqi forces move to Anbar to confront ISIL
BAGHDAD // Iraqi forces retook territory from ISIL east of Ramadi on Saturday, commanders said, in their first counterattack since the militants’ capture of the Anbar provincial capital last week.
In Iraq, a mosaic of anti-ISIL forces have massed in the Euphrates Valley to ready for an offensive aimed at turning the tide on the militants.
The May 17 takeover of Ramadi was Baghdad’s worst defeat in almost a year, while the capture three days later of the historic Syrian city of Palmyra has put its archaeological treasures in peril and positioned ISIL for a possible drive on Damascus.
Security officials said an operation was launched on Saturday to retake Husaybah, a town seven kilometres east of Ramadi in the Euphrates Valley, that ISIL had seized earlier in the week.
“The Husaybah area is now under full control and the forces are now advancing to liberate neighbouring Jweibah,” a police colonel said.
Anbar’s most prominent Sunni tribal leader, Sheikh Rafia Abdelkarim Al Fahdawi, deployed his forces, whose knowledge of the terrain is key, alongside fighters from the Hashed Al Shaabi, an umbrella for Shiite militia and volunteers.
The police colonel said the Husaybah operation also involved local and federal police, the interior ministry’s rapid intervention force as well as the army.
Swift action was seen as essential to prevent ISIL from laying booby traps across Ramadi, which would make any advance in the city more risky and complicated.
But government and allied forces were also keen to prevent further losses as ISIL used its momentum after seizing Ramadi to take more land to the east of the city.
“What happened in Anbar is very similar to what happened last year in Diyala, Mosul and Salaheddin,” said Ahmed Al Assadi, spokesman of the Hashed Al Shaabi.
He was referring to the debacle of security forces when ISIL-led fighters swept across Iraq’s Sunni Arab heartland in June last year, bringing Iraq to the brink of collapse.
Some Iraqi forces were criticised for avoiding battle during the fall of Ramadi, which led prime minister Haider Al Abadi to call in the Hashed Al Shaabi.
He and Washington had opposed the mass deployment in the Sunni province of Anbar of militia groups with direct ties to Iran and a dubious human rights record.
However, the strategy of US-led coalition air strikes while the security apparatus gets revamped has failed to keep up with the pace of ISIL advances.
“At this time, the Hashed are Abadi’s best bet. I don’t think he has many options,” said Ayham Kamel, director for the Middle East and North Africa at the Eurasia Group.
Washington tried to remain upbeat after the loss of Ramadi and Palmyra, playing down the ISIL advance as tactical setbacks.
The militants, who now control roughly half of Syria, reinforced their self-declared transfrontier “caliphate” by seizing Syria’s Al Tanaf crossing on the Damascus-Baghdad highway late Thursday.
Fabrice Balanche, a French expert on Syria, said “IS now dominates central Syria, a crossroads of primary importance” that could allow it to advance towards the capital and third city Homs.
The ISIL advance in both countries forced tens of thousands of civilians from their homes, sparking concern among humanitarian agencies.
On Saturday, Iraq’s deputy prime minister Saleh Mutlaq urged authorities to open the road to Baghdad for thousands of displaced from Ramadi.
“I call for the immediate opening of Bzeibez bridge,” said Mr Mutlaq, who is himself from the mainly Sunni province of Anbar of which Ramadi is the capital.
He said that the bridge, which was opened on Tuesday, had since been closed to those fleeing Ramadi for the safety of Baghdad, 100 kilometres to the east.
“Preventing citizens from entering their capital is a crime,” said Mr Mutlaq. “The constitution does not allow anyone to forbid a citizen from entering any province” in Iraq.
The authorities at Bzeibez bridge are requesting the displaced to have a sponsor before they can enter the capital, where some accuse them of being infiltrated by the ISIL.
According to the International Organisation for Migration, 40,000 people have fled fighting which led to the capture of Ramadi by IS last Sunday.
In Syria, despite a series of regime losses, president Bashar Al Assad saluted the “heroism” of some 150 soldiers and their families who escaped an almost month-long rebel siege of a hospital.
The group had been besieged inside the building in Jisr Al Shughur since the town in northwestern Syria fell to rebels including Al Qaeda’s local affiliate, on April 25.
On Friday, most of those inside managed to escape just as rebel forces overran the hospital.
* Agence France-Presse