Fall of Ramadi reflects failure of Iraq’s strategy against Islamic State, analysts say

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Iraqi reinforcements heading to Ramadi(0:50)
The Iraqi government dispatched military reinforcements towards Ramadi, aiming to retake control of the strategic city recently captured by the Islamic State. (AP)
By Hugh Naylor May 19 at 7:04 PM
BAGHDAD — As Islamic State militants repeatedly attacked ­Ramadi this year, police solicited cash from local families and businessmen to buy weapons, one officer recalled. The Iraqi government didn’t pay the police for months, he said.

“We begged and begged for more support from the government, but nothing,” said Col. Eissa al-Alwani, a senior police officer in the city.

The fall of Ramadi amounts to more than the loss of a major city in Iraq’s largest province, analysts say. It could undermine Sunni support for Iraq’s broader effort to drive back the Islamic State, vastly complicating the war effort.

Prime Minister Haider al-
Abadi on Tuesday reiterated a government pledge to train and arm Sunni fighters to rout the extremists from the predominantly Sunni province. The government had announced a military campaign that envisioned taking back Anbar province in the coming months and then moving on for a climactic battle with
the extremists in Mosul, Iraq’s ­second-largest city.

Boehner: Obama is not taking Islamic State threat seriously(0:53)
House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) is demanding that President Obama develop a new
a new strategy on dealing with Islamic State militants in the wake of the group’s occupation of the city of Ramadi in Iraq. (Reuters)

But the plan to form an effective Sunni fighting force was slow to take shape, hobbled by government concerns that some of the Sunnis might be close to the Islamic State, analysts say.

Now, with Ramadi being overrun, many of the Sunni tribal leaders and fighters who might have helped the government in Anbar have been killed or have fled to other parts of the country, analysts say.

“The plan is looking like a failure,” said Ihsan al-Shamari, a ­political analyst who lives in Baghdad. “Now the Sunnis are even more suspicious of the government, and now it will be even harder to get them to cooperate with a political system that they already deeply distrusted.”

A bloc of Sunni parties in the Iraqi parliament issued a statement Tuesday saying they “blame the government” for Ramadi’s capture by the Islamic State. The bloc, called the National Forces Union, demanded an investigation and called on the government to send arms to Anbar and pay salaries to pro-government fighters in the province.

Islamic State militants had swept into Anbar last year, welcomed by some local residents who were angered by discrimination by the country’s Shiite-dominated government and security forces.

Nearly a decade ago, with an insurgency raging in Anbar, Sunni tribes there switched sides and joined the American-led effort to defeat al-Qaeda in Iraq, the precursor of the Islamic State. But the Sunni “Awakening” forces lost government support after the U.S. withdrawal in 2011.

This time, a number of tribes in Anbar held out for months against the Islamic State. But they complained that neither they nor the security forces got support from the central government.

Omar al-Alwani, a tribal leader from Ramadi, said in a phone interview that about 3,000 tribesmen had fought alongside police in the city during months of battles with the Islamic State. But police forces did not receive their salaries for six months, he said.

“The fight escalated and we had all these police without money, and the Islamic State started targeting them and their families,” he said. “So some of them eventually fled. But what else would you expect them to do in these circumstances?”

Col. Alwani, who is from the same extended family as the tribal leader, also said police had not been paid in months. A call Tuesday seeking comment from the Interior Ministry, which oversees the police, was not returned.

Alwani said by telephone Saturday that the national government failed to deliver weapons and military reinforcements despite the local forces’ repeated requests for support. Police and local tribesmen pooled resources to purchase weapons such as Kalashnikov rifles and rounds on the black market, the police official said, adding that wealthy families and business owners also donated cash.

He spoke by telephone a day before the city fell in intense battles that left over 500 dead and thousands displaced. Subsequent attempts to reach Alwani by telephone were unsuccessful, and his fate is unclear.

Renad Mansour, an Iraq analyst at the Carnegie Middle East Center, said tribes in Anbar may have borne some of the responsibility for the military defeat. He noted that some of them had been reluctant to allow Iraqi forces to fight in their territory.

“There were points when they wanted to get weapons but not allow soldiers to come in,” he said.

Tribal leaders have at times been reluctant to coordinate with the government because of years of discrimination and abuse by authorities in Baghdad.

For its part, the government was wary of sending arms to Anbar, in part because shipments two years ago found their way to insurgents, analysts say.

Abadi on Sunday ordered Shiite militias who have supported the Iraqi army in other areas to deploy to Anbar. The Shiite fighters have proved crucial in driving Islamic State militants out of several cities in recent months, but human rights groups accuse the militiamen of subsequently carrying out revenge attacks against Sunni residents, intensifying sectarian tensions.

Ahmed al-Sharifi, an Iraqi political analyst, cited corruption as a major reason why the Iraqi army performed poorly in Ramadi. He estimated that there were as many as 23,000 “ghost soldiers” on the government payroll in the province — people listed as drawing salaries but who were not actually performing military service. The actual number of soldiers who fought to defend Ramadi, the capital of Anbar province, was closer to 2,000, he said.

In November, Abadi announced as part of a preliminary investigation that at least 50,000 such “ghost soldiers” across Iraq had been receiving salaries, highlighting the level of corruption in a force that Washington spent billions of dollars to train and equip.

“When you have corruption at this scale, then fighting the Islamic State is going to be even more of a challenge,” Sharifi said. “This is a major reason for the security and military collapse in Anbar.”

Mustafa Salim contributed to this report.

Read more:

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The Islamic State is failing at being a state

Watch: How the Islamic State celebrated its victory in Ramadi

Today’s coverage from Post correspondents around the world

Hugh Naylor is a Beirut-based correspondent for The Post. He has reported from over a dozen countries in the Middle East for such publications as The National, an Abu Dhabi-based newspaper, and The New York Times.