Islamic State militants mounted a fresh offensive to capture the capital of Iraq’s largest province in a bid to extend its control over the majority of the country’s Sunni towns and cities.
The al-Qaeda breakaway group sought to seize control of the regional council of Anbar in the city of Ramadi, 90 kilometers (56 miles) west of Baghdad, before being repelled by airstrikes and tribal fighters, local officials said late yesterday. The offensive prompted Prime Minister Haidar Al-Abadi to order the military to arm citizens in the province after tribal leaders and politicians complained of inadequate government support.
Islamic State holds parts of Anbar including the city of Fallujah, scene of violent battles between U.S. forces and al-Qaeda during Iraq’s last round of sectarian conflict more than five years ago. The fall of Ramadi would deal a blow to efforts to curb Islamic State, which declared a so-called caliphate in areas under its control in Syria and Iraq in June after capturing Mosul, the most-populated city in northern Iraq.
“Unfortunately the central government’s support so far is very weak,” Faleh al-Issawi, deputy head of the Anbar provincial council, said by phone from Ramadi.
North of Baghdad, Kurdish Peshmerga forces, aided by the Iraqi army and militias, were successful in driving Islamic State fighters from two towns, clearing a main road from the capital to the border with Iran, according to a statement posted on the Kurdistan Democratic website.
Tahseen al-Khafaji, spokesman for Iraq’s ministry of defense, said in a phone interview yesterday that the military operation to recapture the Jalawla and Saadiya districts from Islamic State fighters are being wrapped up.
Abadi ordered air support for fighters in Anbar and instructed the military to boost its presence in the province, his office announced on Nov. 22. Three cargo planes carrying weapons arrived at a military airport east of Ramadi, Al Mada Press reported yesterday, citing Anbar’s military commander Qassem al-Muhammadi.
The fight in Anbar pits the Sunni extremist groups against fellow Sunni tribes, some of whom helped the U.S. defeat al-Qaeda during the so-called troop surge after the invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein.
Amid their advance across the province, Islamic State militants settled old scores.
The militants have executed hundreds of Sunni tribesmen in reprisal attacks against those who have resisted the group. Earlier this month, they massacred more than 300 members of the Albu Nimr tribe in one of the worst atrocities committed by the group in Anbar.
Rajeh Barakat, a member in Anbar’s provincial council, said the massacre has pushed more people to fight for survival.
“What Islamic State did to Albu Nimr tribe has given the Iraqi tribes defending Ramadi and other cities the momentum and motivation to fight until the end,” he said by phone. He accused the government of putting pressure on local officials to allow the deployment of Shiite militias in Anbar.
“We can’t let that happen because it will increase the sectarian violence,” he said.
His remarks reflect the prevailing mistrust between Iraq’s Shiite rulers and Sunni minority. The U.S. has urged Iraqi officials to reach out to Sunni tribes in an effort to recruit fighters against Islamic State.
Abadi promised a delegation from the Anbar council yesterday “to extend the necessary support and meet the province’s need” to dislodge the militant group, his office said.