Edward Spiers: Threat of sectarian war looms as IS tightens grip

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THE capture of Ramadi, the capital of Anbar province in Iraq, represents a massive triumph for the forces of the “Islamic State”. Although insurgents had tried repeatedly since last summer to seize this city, it required a surprise pincer assault last Thursday, using armoured bulldozers, heavy shelling, and 10 suicide car-bombers to overrun the police headquarters, main government buildings and the Ramadi Grand Mosque.

Despite 19 coalition air strikes in 72 hours, the IS militants triumphed on Sunday. They overwhelmed local police forces in the last government-controlled neighbourhood of Malab, south of Ramadi and seized the Anbar Operations Command, the military headquarters of the province, in north-western Ramadi. They also drove between 6,000 and 8,000 police, government troops, and special forces from the city. Some 500 people are thought to have died in the fighting.

The IS victory represents a major reverse for the US-backed Iraqi government, led by Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, and its military campaign to defeat the Islamic State insurgency. The Iraqi regime had seen IS recoil before Kurdish successes in the north, the recapture of Saddam Hussein’s birthplace, Tikrit, and the defence of the centre of the country’s largest oil refinery at Beiji. IS has now retaliated, capturing a city only 110 kilometres from Baghdad and humiliating the Iraqi army.

American officials attempted to discount the significance of the triumph, which eclipsed news of a Delta Force raid into northern Syria on Saturday, killing an IS operative, Abu Sayyaf.

One day previously, Brigadier-General Thomas Weidley, the chief of staff of the Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve, insisted that the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, as USA authorities still describe IS) remained “on the defensive throughout Iraq and Syria”.

John Kerry, the US secretary of state, was equally adamant that as soon as forces were redeployed in the Ramadi-Fallujah corridor, any ISIL gains in Ramadi would soon be reversed. Unfortunately, the proposed redeployment – even if it builds into an overwhelming force of 30,000 men, as employed in Tikrit – could cause as many problems as it solves.

Reportedly the provincial council of Anbar has appealed to the Baghdad government to retake its capital city by sending, not more government troops, but Shia militia. Haider al-Arabi was previously reluctant to send Shia militia into a Sunni-dominated region but was even more unwilling to arm loyal Sunnis.

Faced with the failure of his own army, he has now sent some 3,000 militiamen as the vanguard of a standby force to the former RAF base of Habbaniya. These paramilitaries are from the Hashid Shaabi, or Popular Mobilization, a body trained and, in many cases, directed by Iranian advisers.

Given the reports of Shia militiamen looting and burning property, as well as abusing Sunni civilians after the fall of Tikrit, any reliance on the Shia militia threatens to exacerbate sectarian tensions in Anbar. If the conflict becomes more sectarian, it will reflect a pattern evident elsewhere in the Middle East, whether involving Houthis in Yemen, Hezbollah in Lebanon, or Hezbollah supporting government forces in Syria.

Meanwhile IS continues to prosper. It has reportedly captured tanks, artillery, military vehicles, and large quantities of arms. It now controls three cities with populations in excess of half a million: Al Raqaa, Mosul and Ramadi.

It can operate along direct supply lines, bringing weapons and fighters from Al Raqaa to Ramadi and thence to the outskirts of Baghdad.

If allowed to consolidate its hold on Anbar, the largest province of Iraq and one which borders Syria, Jordan and Saudi Arabia, it could exploit “success” stories through social media to attract more foreign fighters.

In short, the capture of Ramadi confirms that IS has proved a resilient, agile, and durable adversary, one 
capable of recovering from serious 
losses, including injuries to its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

It has also exposed the limitations of 
a risk-averse American strategy that sought to rely on providing aerial support, while retraining and re-equipping the Iraqi army.

This strategy may now only work in Iraq through a bloody sectarian conflict that enhances the regional power of the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Edward Spiers is Professor of Strategic Studies at the University of Leeds.