Islamic State took control of Ramadi, the capital of Iraq’s largest province, after overrunning security and tribal forces just as the government prepared to send Shiite Muslim militias into the battle.
The Sunni militants forced their way into Ramadi, about 110 kilometers (68 miles) west of Baghdad, after detonating six car bombs on Friday, burning down a central police station and raising their black flag over the government compound.
The battle for Ramadi has been going on since 2014. Ahmed al-Dulaimi, a tribal leader, said Sunday the al-Qaeda breakaway group “pushed into the Ramadi military command headquarters after a fierce fight.” “The whole city is under their control,” he said by phone.
Islamic State’s latest advance is a setback to the U.S.- backed Iraqi government of Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi, undermining his claims that the group is on the retreat.
Ramadi’s fall almost a year after Islamic State captured Mosul, Iraq’s biggest city, underscores the challenge facing the Obama administration to defeat the group, which has proven resilient to air strikes in Iraq and Syria. The U.S. said on Saturday that commandos killed a senior Islamic State leader in Syria, along with about a dozen other militants.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said he was sure that Islamic State’s gains would be reversed.
“I’m confident about the longer road, but yes, there will be moments like yesterday in Ramadi and there will be some difficult challenges ahead,” Kerry said at a press briefing in Seoul on Monday. “Large numbers of Daesh were killed in the last few days and will be in the next days because that seems to be the only thing they understand,” he said, using an alternative name for the militant group.
“It’s a desperate situation in Ramadi,” said James Jeffrey, a former U.S. ambassador to Iraq in the Obama administration who now is a visiting fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
“We need to increase our firepower,” Jeffrey said by phone. “We can’t assume time is on our side. It isn’t. My feeling is something needs to happen quickly or we’re going to lose all of Anbar,” Iraq’s largest province that includes Ramadi.
While the U.S. anticipated Ramadi’s fall, Pentagon spokeswoman Commander Elissa Smith said its capture gave Islamic State the advantage and a propaganda victory to exploit.
“The loss of Ramadi does not mean the tide of the campaign has turned, and we have long said that there would be ebbs and flows on the battlefield,” Smith said. “If lost, that just means the coalition will have to support Iraqi forces to take it back later.”
Anbar’s provincial council on Sunday voted to allow the militias to take part in the fight, according to the Iraqiya television.
About 100 Iraqi soldiers and tribal fighters were killed in Islamic State’s latest drive to capture Ramadi, Al Jazeera television reported. A video posted online purported to show Iraqi military and security armored vehicles leaving the city.
“We call on our people in Anbar to be steadfast and to hold onto the territory,” the Iraqi Defense Ministry said on its website. “Your brothers from the Popular Mobilization is on the way under the banners of God is Great,” it said, using the official name of the Shiite paramilitary groups.
Naim al-Aboudi, spokesman for the Iranian-backed Shiite militia of Asaib Ahl al-Haq, said that the group has received the order to liberate the province from Islamic State.
“We have asked many times before to go there because without our help no city will be liberated,” he said. “What happened in Ramadi today is a lesson to all politicians who rejected our help.”
The militias played a key role against Islamic State in other parts of Iraq, helping government forces retake the city of Tikrit earlier this year.
They have been kept out of the fight in Anbar, where Sunni politicians were concerned that their presence would stoke sectarian tensions. Human rights organizations, citizens and Sunni politicians accuse some of the Shiite groups of carrying out sectarian attacks in other areas of Iraq.
“Prime Minister Abadi was supposed to arm the tribal fighters of Anbar and boost the army’s capabilities first place instead of sending the Shiite militias to the province,” Ahmed al-Misari, a Sunni lawmaker said by phone. “The majority of Anbar’s people and tribes are rejecting these militias.”
Jeffrey, the former ambassador, said Abadi must be careful in using Shiite militias in Sunni territory.
“He’s more likely to get U.S. air support if he doesn’t use the Shiite militias associated with Iran,” Jeffrey said.
For more, read this QuickTake: The Third Iraq War