The city of Ramadi in Iraq fell to Islamic State forces on 17th May after a three day battle for control, including numerous suicide bombings. This highlights the fact that despite bombings by the West, and a few military reverses, the group remains a potent regional threat, its armaments only bolstered by this latest success. Iraqi forces pulled out of the city by the 17th, leaving 500 security personnel and citizenry dead, citing a lack of weaponry and ammunition.
In addition to the capture of Ramadi, Islamic State troops recently seized the last Iraq/Syria border crossing in government hands, as well as the city of Tadmur and the ancient ruins of Palmyra in Syria. Internationally, militants claiming IS affiliation seem to have gained control of the airfield of Sirte in Libya, provoking concern about the expanded reach of the group.
The object lesson of the fall of Ramadi is that not only is Islamic State far from defeated, but that Iraq’s conventional armed forces have suffered such attrition (in men, matériel and morale) that they are simply unable to hold their ground. The initiative has now passed to Shia militias backed, trained and advised by the regional rival Iran, which are so anti-American that they have, on occasion, vowed to fire on US warplanes assisting them.
American Defense Secretary Ashton Carter publicly declared that Iraq’s forces have “no will to fight”, a tacit admission that the only military option left to the Iraqi state are their Shia militiamen. The volatile and potentially uncontrollable groups enabled the retaking of the city of Tikrit, but are also given to violent and sectarian reprisals against (primarily Sunni) civilians.
Ramadi was in part defended by Iraq’s most elite and highly trained Special Forces division, which has suffered colossal casualties in its deployment as conventional troops. One oft-mentioned reason for the defeat was the deployment against Iraqi troops of heavily armoured vehicles packed with explosives. Thousands of anti-tank missiles are to be shipped post-haste to Iraq from France and the US in order to counter this new threat. Another complaint is that requested Western air support is routed through three different channels before it is deployed- and as one Iraqi commander put it, “we are paying for this with our soldiers’ lives”.
Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has pleaded that sanctions against Russia and Iran be relaxed to enable the purchase of armaments. This is an imperative, as reports flood in of tribal chiefs and military units having gone so long without resupply that they have resorted to the black market. The main complaint of retreating forces was that they simply lacked the ammunition with which to fight a serious defence – underscored by US General Martin Dempsey, who noted that troops were “not driven out of Ramadi. They drove out of Ramadi.”
Ramadi’s fall has been a defeat not merely for the Western-backed forces, but also for a narrative that had been growing since Islamic State was forced from the city of Tikrit- that IS forces have begun a decline.
Not only is the group still a potent threat, but their international appeal now stretches as far as Libya, Yemen, Afghanistan and Nigeria. Baghdad may be too important to be allowed to fall, but its defenders are left clutching at straws.