Iraq militias prepare for Ramadi counter-offensive

Iraq militias prepare for Ramadi counter-offensive
Thousands of Shia fighters are preparing for an offensive against Islamic State extremists who seized the Iraqi city of Ramadi at the weekend.
3 min read

Iraq's army and allied paramilitary forces massed around Ramadi on Tuesday in preparation for a counter-offensive to recapture the city from the Islamic State group before it builds up defences.  

Some 3,000 fighters assembled at a military base near Ramadi, preparing to take on Islamic State militants advancing in armored vehicles from the captured city northwest of Baghdad, witnesses and a military officer said.

The decision by Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, who is a Shia, to send in the militias to try to retake the predominantly Sunni city could add to sectarian hostility in one of the most violent parts of Iraq.     

Washington, which is leading a campaign of air strikes to roll back Islamic State advances and struggling to rebuild Baghdad's shattered army, played down the significance of the loss of Ramadi, the capital of the vast western Anbar province. 

US Secretary of State John Kerry said it was a "target of opportunity," that could be retaken in a matter of days.

The US-led coalition had conducted 19 strikes near Ramadi over the past 72 hours at the request of the Iraqi security forces, a coalition spokesman said.

A strategy in tatters

With his security strategy in tatters and his authority facing its biggest challenge since he took office eight months ago, PM Abadi is looking for quick victory.  

Abadi called in the Shia-dominated Popular Mobilisation units (Hashed al-Shaabi) and has "ordered the setting up of new defence lines in Ramadi, to reorganise and deploy the fighting troops", his office said late Monday after he held talks with Iran's visiting defence minister. 

He and Washington had hoped to rely on regular forces and locally recruited Sunni tribal fighters newly incorporated into the Hashed al-Shaabi.  

Such a solution was seen as more palatable to the population of Anbar, a predominantly Sunni province, and a way for Washington to keep Iranian-backed militias at

Anbar police chief Kadhim al-Fahdawi said a large number of well-prepared troops were positioned in Husaybah, about seven kilometres (less than five miles) east of Ramadi.

"This area will be the starting point for the operations to liberate the cities of Anbar," he said on Tuesday.

But much planning remains to be done before Iraqi forces attempt to move back into Ramadi, a large town on the Euphrates about 100 kilometres (60 miles) west of Baghdad. 

"The military operation to liberate Ramadi and Anbar will not start until all the requirements are met," Fahdawi said. 

 After holding on for a year and a half during which the militants never managed to take full control of the city, Iraqi security forces pulled out of their last bases on Sunday.

The retreat was chaotic, with groups of fighters left stranded in parts of the city.   

At least 28 of them were rescued but many were killed and more are still missing.  

Thousands displaced  

According to an official in the Anbar governor's office, at least 500 fighters and civilians were killed in the three-day blitz that led to the fall of Ramadi.  

IS released pictures of the spoils they retrieved from abandoned government bases, including tanks, armoured personnel carriers and other vehicles, as well as weapons and ammunition.  

The group also released pictures of the moment when its fighters freed prisoners held at a counterterrorism detention facility. 

According to the United Nations, at least 25,000 people were forced from their homes by the fighting, the second time in a month Ramadi residents had to flee.  

"Nothing is more important right now than helping the people fleeing Ramadi," the UN's humanitarian coordinator, Lise Grande, said in a statement.  

"Thousands of people had to sleep in the open because they didn't have places to stay," she said.  

At least 2.8 million people have been displaced by conflict in Iraq since the start of 2014. 

Four times as many people have been forced from their homes in neighbouring Syria, where IS was also trying to retake the initiative and made gains in the Palmyra area.