The Ramadi Strategy


Photographer: Ahmad al-Rubaye/AFP/Getty Images

The retaking of Ramadi by Iraqi security forces this past weekend was a blow to Islamic State. It's less clear that it amounts to a major victory for the government in Baghdad, but it at least demonstrates that its U.S.-backed strategy for recapturing territory in Sunni-dominated parts of the country is sound.

QuickTake Fighting Islamic State

The Iraqi government said the army and police retook the city's administrative center without the aid of Iranian-backed Shiite militias -- the fighters who were mainly involved in the recent recapture of Tikrit and the Baiji oil refinery. Those troops have been accused of carrying out vengeance killings of Sunnis in the aftermath of battle, and the government was wise to keep them out of Ramadi, the capital of heavily Sunni Anbar province.

The Iraqis were also smart to move gradually against Ramadi. The two months it took to carry out the offensive allowed time for U.S.-led airstrikes to soften Islamic State targets and for many civilians to escape to safety. Unfortunately, it also gave Islamic State forces plenty of time to rig the city with homemade explosives and set up snipers' nests, and it may now take weeks to clean out the last pockets of resistance.

Ramadi was, on its own, a significant military target. Without control of the city, Islamic State will find it much harder to reinforce its troops in Fallujah, which is just 35 miles west of Baghdad. The operation has been more important, however, as a dress rehearsal for the retaking of Mosul, Iraq's second-largest city, which has a multi-ethnic population of Shiites, Sunnis, Kurds and Turkmen. The Iraqis will need a much larger Sunni-led force to retake this city. And in Mosul, as in Ramadi, it will be essential to quickly establish a legitimate new civilian government with broad support.

Iraq's future depends on building a truly competent military that is representative of the nation's ethnic and religious mix, and on Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi fulfilling his pledge to protect the nation's Sunni minority. Without such political progress, the next rebellion will always be just around the corner.

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