By Khaled Okasha
Before dawn last Friday in Al-Anbar in Iraq, “Islamic State” (IS) took over the government complex in Ramadi, the capital of the province. In the meantime, news spread that the security forces retreated from the complex following violent clashes with IS. The government complex includes the province’s office, Al-Anbar’s police department, the affairs directorate of Al-Anbar, and a number of government and service entities.
The most significant security news on Friday 15 May was when IS completely took over areas of Al-Gameya, Al-Bouloan, Al-Theela, and Street 17 in Ramadi. IS immediately executed 17 members of the security forces in the city. Officials in the governorate and the city’s citizens put the blame on the Ministry of Defence and the Iraqi Ministry of Interior for the deterioration of the security situation in Ramadi and other areas of the province. They demanded that families be saved from this “wave attack” by IS forces to demolish the achievements of the Iraqi forces, supported by the coalition forces by air.
AFP announced that IS forces took over the complex at 2pm and raised their black flag. Armed men attacked the complex, which is located in the middle of Ramadi, with three truck bombs, which resulted in the collapse of huge parts inside the building.
Meanwhile, Reuters published news detailing the breaking in of armed men who used armoured bulldozers to remove the barricades in the streets leading to the police headquarters near the complex. They then bombed the bulldozer when it reached the headquarters.
The security reports from Baghdad on this incident stated that armed men from IS besieged a significant number of police forces inside the complex. A number of local police officers left their weapons and escaped in civilian clothing to other areas of the city that are still under the government’s control. This took place after an announcement from IS that they attacked military centres east of Ramadi, including an attack by a suicide bomber.
IS forces declared the killing of 31 Iraqi soldiers east of Ramadi. They also executed 14 of the Sunni forces when they took over the university neighbourhood. After 48 hours, on Sunday, IS announced the fall of Ramadi to be completely under their control, and that Iraqi forces were out of the city.
Before this bloody Friday, the Pentagon had announced that the battle between the Iraqi forces to retake the Baiji oil refinery is going in the wrong direction. The Baiji oil refinery is considered one of the largest oil refineries in Iraq. The Pentagon refused to declare its expectations for the outcome of the battle. Colonel Steve Warren, the Pentagon spokesman, expressed concern, saying that “the battle was a tough one and it is hard to predict the consequences. However, it is now going in the wrong direction”.
Warren also said that things may change, but it is hard to see any hope. According to Warren, the oil refinery is now on halt and it is not clear whether IS will utilise it, even if they managed to take over it. Baiji is the gateway to Mosul, added Warren, so it will be hard, but not impossible, to retake Mosul without taking control over Baiji.
All these incidents and attacks provide evidence of the gravity of the crisis in the Iraqi army and the supporting security forces. They are also a clear image of the decline in power over the land and strategic areas where the battle is taking place.
The Pentagon’s plan, which was stated at the start of forming the coalition, was to offer only aerial support to the Iraqi forces, while the forces would fight on land. The support will strike with air attacks against the IS centres. It will also provide information on IS’s moves and routes for the benefit of the Iraqi forces.
However, IS somehow continuously proves that it is more capable of employing the right moves and tactics in changing their defence lines. They also ignored the speeches of Baghdad’s politicians on false victories by the coalition against IS, for almost a year since invading Iraq last June.
IS is now regaining control over the Baiji oil refinery and breaking through to Mosul and winning its great battle, about which politicians were talking. IS moved in the right directions to take control over major cities like Ramadi, making the situation even more complicated for the leadership in Baghdad, which is swallowed up in completely different complications.
Officials of the Iraqi government and, sadly, professional military men relied on the Popular Mobilisation militias to resolve the issue of maintaining the freed land from IS forces. They also wanted to achieve victories as soon as they could, through forming the militias. These militias were formed to answer the call for jihad against IS by Ali Al-Sistani.
These militias were pushed towards expanding and battling against IS, eventually becoming the cover under which Tehran offered support to the Iraqi government. Iranian military leaders took over the arming and training of these clans, and field commanders appeared on cameras of news agencies without shame or equivocation.
Qasem Soleimani and many other Iranian leaders have been boasting through their media about supporting Iraq to defeat IS, the terrorist organisation that terrified the whole world. Over time, and with the events that took place, popular militias started to go in a different direction, or perhaps the real direction for which they were originally formed. A senior military commander in Tehran has recently said that the Iranian army recruited 100,000 armed men to join factions to fight against terrorism. This exceptional number and all the events that took place during the past months led to a terrifying sectarian swamp that made talking about the fight against terrorism and what the militias did merely a joke.
The all-Shi’a popular militias started taking steps towards freeing cities from IS’s grip by committing terrible abuses against the area’s Sunni people, but the situation then could only handle focusing on the IS’s wrath. So the scenes of burning and destroying Sunni villages and the displacement of their inhabitants were not talked about. The situation evolved into the occupation of some of these forces of a number of cities and villages, from which its inhabitants escaped out of fear of the horrors that could befall them. An even more cruel escalation took place, where their refuge in safe places near Baghdad, at their own expense, was rejected by forces from the militias; they even imposed on them the condition of the Iraqi families having a ‘sponsor’ in order to be allowed to stay.
Violations, murder and the destructions of homes and property are all crimes committed by the militias that came into the light once the map of sectarian cleansing started to unfold and was practiced by the militias against citizens and Sunni properties.
The reactions of the Iraqi government and leaders in Baghdad seemed weak and made them look like they did not mind these crimes against humanity and the real threat of tearing Iraq apart.
This dark picture revealed to us that Iraqi leaders are in the middle of so many complications other than the successive defeats from IS. What leaders came out with from the crimes committed by the militias against Sunnis explains the size of these complications.
There seems to be two explanations of what Iraqi leaders are facing, and each one is worse than the other. They either have no control over the militias, which means that all the moves and crimes by these men are completely controlled by Iran, or the organised scheme of these crimes is going according to an Iranian-Iraqi control on the sidelines of fighting against IS, to eventually tear Iraq apart. This will make it a result of a long struggle where blood will be shed and all parties exhausted. This will result in everyone dealing with the bitter consequences and the strategic disorder, which we will all taste without exceptions.
Khaled Okasha is security analyst and Director of the National Center for Security Studies