Iraqi forces’ hopes of recapturing the city of Ramadi from the Islamic State have stalled, largely because their efforts to cut resupply routes into the city of nearly 1 million have failed.
Iraqi planners had hoped a cordon around the city, the capital of Anbar province, Iraq’s largest, would prevent the Islamic State from being able to prepare for a long siege. But local military commanders, residents and analysts say the Iraqi forces were unable to maintain the cordon and that the Islamic State has been able to resupply.
Iraqi officials have announced a new operation to retake the city nearly every week since the Islamic State routed its defenders last spring. But despite the vows, it’s become clear that the government has neither the manpower nor the training to conduct an offensive in a huge city that remains packed with civilians. The Islamic State apparently has succeeded in keeping civilians from fleeing.
“Daash learned from other battles that if you let the civilians flee then it makes it easier for the coalition to use air power,” said one Western military adviser to the Iraqi government who asked not to be identified in order to speak freely about what he described as a failed military operation.
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On Nov. 5, Iraqi planes flooded the city with leaflets, warning Ramadi residents to flee a coming offensive. Local residents said the move served only to increase the number of Islamic State checkpoints to keep people from leaving. The Islamic State also built new defensive positions that included huge numbers of roadside bombs and mined buildings to fend off any assault.
“Daash had been preparing all summer by planting IEDs and building bunkers to protect their fighters from the jets,” one resident said by phone, declining for security reasons to be identified. “But now the number of checkpoints has doubled after the government told everyone to leave.”
“People are afraid to leave their homes to buy bread for fear of being accused of trying to escape,” the resident said, “and they are afraid to stay in their homes because the city is now one huge bomb waiting for the government.”
The Islamic State’s use of roadside bombs is extensive. In one clearing operation in the town of al Baghdadi, near Ramadi, security forces dismantled at least 62 roadside bombs in one afternoon in a one-mile stretch of highway.
Residents say the militants also have managed to hold the road linking Ramadi to the Islamic State strongholds of Abu Kamal and Deir el Zour in Syria, leaving them well-positioned to resupply even when airstrikes successfully target ammunition depots.
Local residents also are skeptical about recent military operations that the government has claimed as successes. A commando raid on Oct. 28 that the Iraqi government’s Anbar operations center claimed had killed nine top Islamic State officials and destroyed an ammunition dump accomplished little, they said.
“They were able to replace everything they lost in an hour,” the resident reached by phone said. “The roads to Syria are open and the fighters have spent all summer digging positions to protect themselves from airstrikes.”
In nearby Fallujah, with 500,000 residents Anbar’s second largest city, both Iraqi and Western military advisers say Iraqi government troops have been more effective in targeting key Islamic State areas. But the Iraqi government remains focused on retaking Ramadi, despite the recommendation from American officials that recapturing Fallujah is more likely to be a success.
One key reason for the better Iraqi position in Fallujah, according to an Iraqi security official and a Western military adviser, is more active participation in combat operations there by U.S. special operations forces.
According to the adviser, and confirmed by the Iraqi official, both of whom asked not to be identified because of the sensitive nature of their information, Marine Corps special operators may be doing more than “mentoring” Iraqi troops.
“There’re a lot of bad guys in Fallujah getting shot in the head from pretty far away, outside the capability of the mentored troops,” said the adviser.
There was no immediate comment from U.S. officials in the United States.
The role of U.S. special operations forces in Iraq recently drew attention when a member of the Army’s elite Delta Force died during a raid with Kurdish forces on an Islamic State prison.
Delta Force operators also are assisting for a long-planned Kurdish assault to retake Sinjar in northern Iraq, the city whose capture by the Islamic State in August 2014 provided the impetus for President Barack Obama to begin air operations in Iraq.
Despite offensives to rescue thousands of Yazidis who escaped the Islamic State capture of Sinjar by fleeing to the nearby Sinjar Mountains, the city itself has remained under Islamic State control.
An operation to recapture Sinjar has been delayed by disputes between the Kurdish peshmerga militia, the official military force of the Kurdish Regional Government, Iraq’s autonomous Kurdish region, and the Kurdistan Workers Party, the Turkish insurgent group known as the PKK, which played a major role in rescuing the Yazidis and turning back Islamic State fighters last year.
“The PKK want to be the heroes who liberate Sinjar, while the peshmerga just want to conduct a proper operation to liberate the city,” said Helgurd Hikmet, general director of the peshmerga media affairs directorate. “We need to come to an agreement over who will administer Sinjar, which is part of Iraq, but the PKK have a regional agenda involving Turkey that we in the KRG refuse to be involved in.”
The PKK has been fighting a three-decade-long insurgency against the Turkish government and is closely linked to a Syrian Kurdish militia, the People’s Protection Units, or YPG, which with U.S. assistance has waged a successful campaign against the Islamic State in northern Syria.
But both groups are viewed as terrorist organizations by the Turkish government, and any role they have in administering a recaptured Sinjar would set off alarm bells in Turkey, which fears the establishment of any PKK-administered area would encourage the PKK to pursue autonomy for Turkey’s Kurdish population.
The Western military adviser also said Delta Force was unwilling to participate in a Sinjar operation after news networks broadcast live from near the scene.
“I’m sure there’s a serious fight between the KRG and PKK over Kurdish stuff but Delta, who had just lost a guy, was furious to be watching CNN reporting live from just outside the battle space about how in the coming days there would be an invasion,” said the adviser, who is close to both U.S. and British military units. “Delta really doesn’t like to tell people when it’s coming, so they called the mission off.”