Shiite militias poured into Iraq’s Anbar province to spearhead the fight to recapture its capital, which was seized by Islamic State in the jihadist group’s biggest victory in the country this year.
Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi ordered the militias to deploy after Sunday’s fall of Ramadi, which lies about 100 kilometers (68 miles) to the west of Baghdad. The city’s capture demonstrated the militants’ resilience to months of U.S.-led airstrikes and Iraqi government efforts to flush them from their strongholds.
Ja’afer al-Hussani, a spokesman for Kitaeb Hezbollah, one of Iraq’s most powerful militias, said the group has sent 4,000 fighters to Anbar. Asaib Ahl al-Haq, another militia, said it has mobilized at least 1,500 men.
The fall of Ramadi was a blow for Abadi, who had vowed to keep control of the city, and for the morale of the nation’s armed forces which had regrouped after disintegrating in the face of last summer’s major Islamic State offensive. The presence of thousands of Shiite militiamen, many of them backed by Iran, in majority Sunni Anbar will fuel concerns over sectarian violence as well as growing Iranian influence in its neighbor.
“More forces is the only solution. Hashd is the only speedy mechanism left,” said Michael Knights, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy who specializes in Iraq, using a local name for the militias. Iraq will now have to focus its war against Islamic State in Anbar rather than the long-touted offensive on Mosul, the group’s de facto capital in the country, he said.
“Ramadi is the nail in the coffin for the madcap ‘rush to Mosul’ model: the Anbar-first model now takes precedence by default,” Knights said on Twitter.
Abadi’s order to send in the militias, and his call for Sunni forces not to flee, came hours after Anbar’s provincial council voted to approve the move. Most of the militiamen were gathering at the Habania Air Base, about 20 kilometers outside Ramadi, as well as near Fallujah
While the militias played a key role in wresting back the northern city of Tikrit from Islamic State in March, the U.S., Iraq’s main military backer, has expressed concern about Iraq relying too heavily on the Shiite forces.
Islamic State now controls most of Anbar, including large parts of the province’s main highway, which runs from the Syrian border to Baghdad and is used by the Iraqi government to move troops and supplies.
While attacks in Baghdad may rise as a result, a full-scale assault on the capital is unlikely, Sajad Jiyad, an Iraq analyst at the Baghdad-based Iraqi Institute for Economic Reform, said by phone.
“I don’t see that happening, Baghdad is too well fortified,” he said. “It’s more about controlling strategic routes.”
The operation to dislodge Islamic State from Ramadi will probably unfold along similar lines to the one that liberated Tikrit, he said.
“We’ll get about two weeks of buildup and then about one month of operations, with U.S. airstrikes, to clear it,” Jiyad said.
The successful operation in Tikrit marked Iraq’s first major victory against Islamic State since it seized Mosul last June. Yet the offensive there also exposed tensions between the militias and the U.S., which insisted on the Shiite forces withdrawing from front-line roles before it agreed to provide air support.
Iran’s deepening involvement in Iraq has also alarmed its Sunni regional rivals, led by Saudi Arabia. In the latest sign of its role in propping up Abadi’s government, Iranian Defense Minister Hossein Dehqan arrived in Baghdad on Monday for talks.
Islamic State militants had been laying siege to Ramadi for more than a year. They forced their way into the city center after detonating six car bombs and burning down a central police station.
In a statement released on social media, the group said it had purged the city and captured its army base, along with tanks and missile launchers left behind as Iraqi forces retreated to Khadliya, to the east of Ramadi.
“The rapid removal of army forces from Ramadi to some extent echoes the catastrophe at Mosul last year and raises serious question about army leadership and competence on the ground,” said Reidar Visser, an Iraq historian. “Despite months of coalition bombing support, the Iraqi army appears unable to consolidate control in Anbar and is very far from even considering a move on Mosul.”