Following the fall of Ramadi to ISIS this weekend, Iraq is launching a counterattack spearheaded by Shi’a militias that had previously been uninvolved in the fighting. The Wall Street Journal reports:
Officials from two of the most powerful Shiite militias on Monday said their fighters were launching attacks on Ramadi, the capital of Anbar province, in a bid to restore government control over the city. Their objective is to prevent Islamic State—which now controls Ramadi, Fallujah and Mosul—from advancing east toward the Iraqi capital, Baghdad, or south toward Shiite holy sites.
By all accounts, the Iraqi Army, or ISF, collapsed in the defense of Ramadi, just as it has time and again against ISIS previously, abandoning arms and armor to the enemy as it fled. The Shi’a militias are a more feared fighting force, and they outnumber the ISF by a significant margin. They had been held back, however, because Ramadi, the capital of Anbar province, lies in the heart of Sunni Iraq—and the Shi’a militias have been repeatedly, credibly accused of perpetrating sectarian massacres. And there is also the inconvenient fact that many if not most of them have strong links to Iran.
Now the Obama Administration, not to say the Iraqi government, is on the horns of an ugly dilemma. If Ramadi is not recaptured, Sunni Iraq will have slipped to ISIS, and all the king’s horses and all the king’s men may never be able to put Iraq back together again. On the other hand, if the U.S. backs the militias’ advance, it may well be party to ethnic bloodshed that will put the killings after the fall of Tikrit to pale. Thus, even if the militas do retake Ramadi the methods they employ could so deeply antagonize the non-ISIS-supporting elements of the Sunni population as to have the same result: no more Iraq.
While publicly the Administration and the Pentagon have started to sound a bit like Baghdad Bob, Administration officials have anonymously begun voicing their unease with the situation, in one instance describing Ramadi as a “powder keg” noting that there is a potential for things to go “very, very badly.”
And while another anonymous insider said “You got to fight with the army you got, and this is the army they got,” nonetheless that doesn’t mean you’ll necessarily win with “the army you got.” There is no guarantee that the militias will be successful. ISIS’ tactics in taking the city were very sophisticated, including using a sandstorm to negate U.S.-provided air superiority. And as a New York Times report details today, the group’s finances are in better shape than previously thought; fond Western hopes that ISIS will collapse under its own weight, which have been repeatedly raised and then dashed, look dimmer than ever.
Right now Iraq isn’t winning. And the U.S. needs a strategy that can actually deal with that.