- By Paul McLearyPaul McLeary is Foreign Policy’s senior reporter covering the U.S. Defense Department and national security issues. He joined the Washington office in 2015 after working for Defense News, where he was also on the Pentagon beat, and covered stories relating to Pentagon spending and the defense industry. While there, and in a previous incarnation as a New York-based reporter, Paul embedded with U.S. Army and Marine Corps units in Iraq and Afghanistan to cover ground combat operations, where he got inside a secretive drone program being run out of Bagram air base. He has also traveled with the U.S. Navy, covered NATO meetings in Europe with the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and stalked major international arms shows in Paris and London.
With Iraqi forces claiming victory in Ramadi, Baghdad finds itself facing a pair of difficult tests: retaking the Islamic State-held cities of Fallujah and Mosul and then persuading jittery Sunnis that they can trust Iraq’s Shiite-led government enough to return home and begin rebuilding the war-shattered region.
The months-long siege of Ramadi — which the Islamic State captured in May in a humiliating defeat for Baghdad — finally came to an end in recent days after Iraqi ground forces managed to breach the rings of improvised explosive devices and other obstacles methodically assembled by well-entrenched Islamic State fighters. U.S. warplanes carried out more than 630 airstrikes on Islamic State targets throughout the city since July, but for once the success of the final assault didn’t rely on American air power or an influx of battle-hardened Shiite militias. Instead, regular Iraqi military units led the way using some relatively low-tech, non-lethal American equipment that helped turn the tide of the fight. The conquest of Ramadi, in other words, shows how often conventional wisdom can be mistaken when it comes to combat.
The thrust into the city came without significant help from Iraq’s powerful Iranian-backed Shiite militias, which had played a critical role in retaking the towns of Tikrit and Baiji earlier this year after regular Iraqi Army units faltered. Many analysts had predicted that Baghdad’s reliance on the militias, which often fought more effectively than Iraq’s standing military, would further alienate an already suspicious Sunni population.
After the Islamic State was pushed out of Tikrit by Iraqi forces and the Shiite militias earlier this year, scores of Sunni refugees fleeing the fighting reported that the Iranian-backed militias killed unarmed men, looted and burned their homes, and arrested some 200 young men without cause. A report from Human Rights Watch released in September used satellite imagery to underscore the vast amount of destruction the militias caused after the fighting was over.
But it appears that Baghdad mostly held the Shiite forces back during the Ramadi operation, relying instead on regular army units, some of which had been trained by American troops in recent months. The United States deployed a handful of military trainers to Iraq in June 2014, a commitment that has since grown to 3,500 troops, and the conquest of Ramadi marks the first successful operation conducted by the retrained and rearmed Iraqi military.
Another new wrinkle came after Islamic State fighters blew up several key bridges into the city that crossed over the Euphrates River. The move was meant to funnel Iraqi forces pouring into the city through a handful of well-defended routes, making it easier for the Islamic State to inflict casualties. But instead of more U.S.-supplied tanks, rockets, or bomb-resistant trucks, Iraqi engineers unleashed a floating bridge given to them by the Americans, using it to cross the Tharthar Canal and quickly push vehicles and heavy equipment into the city.
By opening up a new route into Ramadi, the bridging gear was arguably as important as any tank or weapons system that Washington had gifted Baghdad in recent years. It also marked a critical test for Iraqi troops, as they’ll likely be called on to do it again in the fight for Mosul, a city also bisected by the Euphrates River. Islamic State militants have already blown up some of the bridges into the city in anticipation of a coming assault.
Overall, however, the fight for Ramadi offered a playbook for future assaults on Islamic State strongholds: mass thousands of ground troops while allowing them the time to methodically push forward under the umbrella of relentless American air power.
Ramadi “demonstrates the effectiveness of the coalition’s air campaign combined with dedicated ground forces,” said Ahmed Ali, a senior fellow at the Institute of Regional and International Studies of the American University of Iraq, Sulaimani. “The overwhelming numbers,” which included Iraqi special operations forces, the army, and as many as 5,000 Sunni tribal fighters, “will now have to play an important role as a holding force,” he said.
While the tactics moving forward may have come into focus, Baghdad still must find a way to win the peace in the Sunni heartland of Anbar province, which is a longer, and likely tougher, fight than the one against the Islamic State. And it remains to be seen how long the Shiite militias and their powerful Iraqi political backers in Baghdad will remain on the sidelines once the fight for Anbar begins.
Keeping the Iran-leaning militias out of the fight is key, as “Sunnis are less and less trusting when they see that our strategy in Iraq is aligned with supporting Iraqi forces heavily infiltrated by Shia militias,” said Michael Pregent, a retired U.S. Army intelligence officer and adjunct fellow at the Hudson Institute.
Then there is rebuilding. There has been little information about how many civilians were left in Ramadi by the time the Iraqi forces made their way in or what life under the well-publicized brutalities of the Islamic State entailed. But as dozens of photos and new video footage released over the past week show, entire neighborhoods appear to have been reduced to rubble after months of bombardment, and with bridges down, the logistical challenges and financial costs of rebuilding will be immense.
Once the shooting stops in Ramadi and in other cities, the Shiite-led government in Baghdad will have to finally assert its authority — and come to the aid of — shattered cities full of distrustful Sunni residents, fearful of a majority Shiite army and of the Shiite militias that do little to hide Iranian influence. Government officials have pledged to hand over security in Ramadi, at least, to Sunni militias in the coming weeks. American and Italian military trainers in Iraq have already trained about 100 Sunni police officers to serve in Ramadi, along with “several thousand” Sunni tribesmen, according to a U.S. military official.
But the Ramadi victory should boost the confidence of the army, which has a long road in front of it. The coming march through the Sunni heartland of Anbar province will be a test for how Baghdad controls the powerful Iranian-backed militias, which may already be preparing the ground for operations in Fallujah, and for the ability of Baghdad to keep the country together.
But spirits in Baghdad appear high. Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi celebrated the liberation of Ramadi on Monday, tweeting, “We say with complete confidence we are coming to liberate Mosul, with the unity and resolve of this great nation and its brave sons.”
He didn’t say when that operation, already delayed for months after U.S. military advisors boasted earlier this year that the Iraqis would assault Mosul by spring, would begin.
Photo credit: AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP/Getty Images