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The Iraqi army needs a boost and regaining Ramadi may be it

Today the Iraqi army stormed the centre of Ramadi, the Iraqi city captured by Daesh in May. Backed by airstrikes from the US-led coalition, the Iraqi army is attempting to reclaim Ramadi’s central government compound and the surrounding area, the only part of the city still held by Daesh.

If the Iraqi army successfully takes back the compound, it would be a significant setback for Daesh, which has suffered several defeats to security forces and allied militias in recent months. In April, Tikrit was recaptured by the security forces, while in November the north-western town of Sinjar was taken back by Kurdish fighters. Reclaiming Ramadi would also be a much-needed psychological boost for the Iraqi army, which has floundered as Daesh has seized control of a third of Iraq. In May, militants drove the army out of Ramadi in just a few days. It was a huge defeat for Iraq’s struggling central government in Baghdad, which is just 96.5 kilometres from Ramadi.

Iraqi military leaders said that it would take just a few days to clear central Ramadi of militants, although this should be taken with a pinch of salt, given that the government has already twice announced major operations to take back Ramadi and its surrounding Anbar province without any success. According to officials, militants have prevented citizens from leaving Ramadi after the government dropped leaflets warning of the impending military incursion. It is believed that they plan to use civilians as human shields. This is just one element of Daesh’s defensive system, which also includes the use of improvised explosive devices to create urban minefields.

The current operation to take the city back began in early November, with attempts to cut off supply lines to Ramadi, including tunnels that militants had built so they could avoid airstrikes. Progress has been slow. The government wanted to rely entirely on its own troops rather than using Shia militias to bolster its forces, as it has in the past. The recapture of Tikrit in April was carried out with the support of such militias, but there were widespread reports of rights abuses. According to Human Rights Watch, men from these government-backed militias destroyed hundreds of civilian buildings in Tikrit in March and April, after Daesh had withdrawn from the area. As well as destroying homes and shops, 200 Sunni residents were abducted; 160 remain unaccounted for.

Before the campaign, these militias had sworn to revenge a Daesh massacre of Shia fighters. In Iraq, sectarian tension runs deep. It does not take much for it to inflame. The sectarian overtones are difficult to avoid if Shia militias are fighting in the Anbar province, which is primarily Sunni. While these Shia forces are among Iraq’s most effective, the fear that they will alienate the local population in Ramadi has kept them out of the operation. For its part, the US has urged the Iraqi government – dominated by Shia politicians – to forge links with Sunni tribal fighters in Anbar, also trained and equipped by the US.

Thus far there has been little option but to utilise tribal militias: as its abandonment of entire cities such as Mosul and Tikrit in 2014 showed, the Iraqi army has hardly been fit for purpose, despite the fact that the US spent $25 billion training and rebuilding the army during its eight-year occupation of the country. The subsequent state of the army was evidence that money does not cure all ills. Widespread corruption and sectarian power structures within the army left the institution weak and unable to respond to the unfolding crisis of Daesh seizing territory. It was this quick retreat by the army in places such as Mosul that allowed Daesh to capture American-made weapons from military bases and to seize huge sums of money from banks.

In addition to airstrikes, the US and its coalition partners have been engaged in a training programme with the Iraqi military as well as with Kurdish Peshmerga forces. The aim has been to get the security forces to a level of operational competence where they can take and hold Ramadi and other key locations. The current assault will, in part, be a test of how effective this training programme has been so far.

Even if the Iraqi army successfully takes back Ramadi, there will be a long way left to go. Daesh still controls Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, and Fallujah, which is even closer to Baghdad. Yet victory in Ramadi would be a major strategic success, as well as giving a sign that the Iraqi army might be able to move past its current dysfunction.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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