The US-backed battle to retake Ramadi from Islamic State fighters is going nowhere
US-backed Iraqi forces are struggling to make headway in their battle to retake the western city of Ramadi, highlighting shortcomings in Washington’s strategy to counter Islamic State militants.
Three months after the city’s fall to the Sunni extremist group, Iraqi forces have not yet surrounded the city 130km west of Baghdad, commanders say, the first stated aim of the counteroffensive.
The stuttering pace of the operation is likely to dent the image of the United States in Iraq, even as it spends US$1.6 billion on training and equipping Iraqi forces.
The operation to retake Ramadi is being led by US-backed forces, with Iraq’s Shiite militias largely excluded amid concerns about stoking sectarian tension in the Sunni majority province of Anbar.
The top Iraqi army officer for Anbar, of which Ramadi is the capital, blamed a lack of US-led air support for the limited progress. Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said in an interview with the BBC in May that the city would be retaken “in days”.
“What is making it slow is that there are not enough airstrikes from the coalition to clear targets on the ground,” said Major General Qasim al-Mohammadi, the head of Anbar Operations Command. “The coalition isn’t available all the time for Ramadi. They are busy (elsewhere in Iraq) and in Syria, so there’s a lack of strikes.”
A US military official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss an Iraqi-led operation, said the effort to expel Islamic State fighters from Ramadi had been slowed by a number of factors, including severe heat in recent weeks and the extensive fortifications and booby-traps that militants have laid around the city.
As for air support, Marine Brigadier General Kevin Killea said US forces were providing the Iraqis with “what they need”.
“I have visuals on how much air support we’ve been given on a daily basis. . . . Just in the last week alone, we’ve done 16 or 17 strikes in the Ramadi area alone,” he said.
The United States is spending US$9.9 million a day on its air campaign in Iraq and Syria, and coalition planes have carried out about 4,000 airstrikes in Iraq over the past year. But Iraqi officials say that is not enough to make a decisive difference on the ground.
“We’ve asked them for more strikes more than a thousand times,” Mohammadi said. “They say there’s a lack in the number of aircraft and multiple front lines.”
Mohammadi spoke by phone from the northern city of Irbil, where he was recovering after being injured in a mortar attack last month. Days later, two senior Iraqi generals were killed in a suicide bombing. Still, Mohammadi remained upbeat.
“We don’t think these losses among the leaders are going to affect morale,” he said. “We are still holding, and the offensive is ongoing.”
Other commanders were less optimistic.
“The forces moved forward about a month and a half ago, and then nothing,” said a general with the Iraqi security forces. Like other commanders, he spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the failings of the operation. “There is no plan, and there is no leadership.”
He disagreed with the Anbar army chief’s assessment that a lack of U.S. strikes was to blame.
“The coalition is there, and if there was a battle, they’d assist, but there’s no operation for them to assist with,” he said.
Another senior US army officer said that overall, Islamic State militants have the upper hand on the battlefield, he said, launching regular attacks on Khalidiyah and Habbaniyah, towns about 25km east of Ramadi near Taqaddum air base, where US soldiers are now based.
Abdullah Zubar Alwani, a 20-year-old tribal fighter in Khalidiyah, said his forces come under regular attack.
“Right now, Daesh has the upper hand,” he said, using the Arabic acronym for the Islamic State. “They say that Ramadi is besieged, but Daesh is attacking Khalidiyah from Ramadi, so how can it be besieged?”