Operation begins to retake Iraq's Anbar from IS

Operation begins to retake Iraq's Anbar from IS
Iraq formally announced on Tuesday the start of a military operation to liberate the western province of Anbar from Islamic State extremists.
3 min read
The fall of Ramadi was a huge setback for Baghdad and Washington [Getty]

Iraqi forces launched an operation in desert areas northeast of Ramadi Tuesday aimed at cutting off Islamic State militants and preparing to retake the fallen city. 

Ten days after the Islamic State group's shock capture of the capital of Iraq's largest province, a spokesman said the latest operation was only a preparatory move before an assault on Ramadi.  

The operation will see a mix of security forces and paramilitaries move south towards the city from Salaheddin province, said Hashed al-Shaabi spokesman Ahmed al-Assadi. 

The Hashed al-Shaabi ("popular mobilisation" in Arabic) is an umbrella group for mostly Shia militia and volunteers, which the government called in after the Islamic State group captured Ramadi on May 17.  

"The operation's goal is to liberate those regions between Salaheddin and Anbar and try to isolate the province of Anbar," Assadi said.  

The Hashed said 4,000 men were heading to the northern edge of Ramadi.   

Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi and his US allies had been reluctant to deploy Iran-backed Shia in Anbar, a predominantly Sunni province.  

Anbar's provincial capital Ramadi had resisted IS assaults for more than a year but fell earlier this month after a massive militant offensive and a chaotic retreat by security forces. 

The Islamic State group controls most of Anbar, a huge province which borders territory also under its control in neighbouring Syria.  

Pockets of government control include some eastern areas near the capital, the city of Haditha, parts of the town of Al-Baghdadi and the Al-Asad air base, where hundreds of US military advisers are stationed.   

Regular forces and Hashed al-Shaabi paramilitaries also made progress south and west of Ramadi, an army lieutenant colonel told AFP, and retook an area called Al-Taesh.  

"The Iraqi security forces and Hashed al-Shaabi have now cut off all supply routes for IS in Ramadi from the south," provincial council member Arkan Khalaf al-Tarmuz said.   

US overtures to Baghdad 

Over the past week, IS is likely to have built up its defences by rigging much of Ramadi with explosives, the group's weapon of choice.  

Washington on Monday moved to appease Baghdad after Iraq's leadership reacted angrily to comments by the Pentagon chief accusing Iraqi forces of "lacking the will to fight". 

Ashton Carter's remarks to the CNN news channel were widely perceived as unfair in Iraq, where some forces have put up valiant resistance to IS assaults. 

In a call to Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, the White House quoted Vice President Joe Biden as saying he "recognised the enormous sacrifice and bravery of Iraqi forces over the past 18 months in Ramadi and elsewhere."  

Abadi had earlier told the BBC that he was confident that Ramadi will be taken back 'in days'.

Tehran, the main backer of the paramilitary groups that were sent to Anbar's rescue, suggested it was Washington that was indecisive in its approach to IS.  

"How can you be in that country under the pretext of protecting the Iraqis and do nothing? This is no more than being an accomplice in a plot," said General Qassem Suleimani, the Revolutionary Guards' commander of foreign operations.  

The US-led coalition has carried more than 3,000 strikes against IS targets in Iraq and Syria over the past 10 months.  

Baghdad and Washington had boasted that IS was a waning force after months of territorial losses but the fall of Ramadi signalled that the group may have been written off too soon.  

Its seizure of the city prompted 55,000 residents to flee their homes, according to the United Nations. 

Many of them have been prevented from crossing into other provinces, for fear they have been infiltrated by IS fighters.

Some Sunni Arab politicians and activists have described the move as unconstitutional and discriminatory against the minority community.  

The International Rescue Committee said the restriction was forcing some people to return to conflict areas.  

"Thousands of people fleeing Ramadi are stuck at checkpoints or being denied entry to safe areas," IRC's Syrian crisis response regional director, Mark Schnellbaecher, said.  

"For some people the situation has become so hopeless that they are returning to the conflict in Ramadi."