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Zak Brophy

Divided and disparate bed fellows eye up Anbar counter-offensive

Watch: Displaced Iraqis flee Anbar [AFP]

Date of publication: 21 May, 2015

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The fall of Ramadi was a blow to the US backed strategy against IS, putting both Baghdad and Washington on the back foot and exposing the failure of Iraqi politics.
The fall of Ramadi to Islamic State last weekend tore through the widely touted claims that the group was in retreat and on the back foot in Iraq.

The Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) have been routed and shamed once again with nearly all of Anbar province now under the control of the Islamic State group (IS, formerly ISIS), except for some small pockets of inhabited areas and a handful of military bases. 

Although Shia dominated militias and the ISF are gathering in preparation for a counter offensive - which the US-led coalition has vowed to support with continued airstrikes -there are major divisions among those forces now consolidating ranks and drawing up battle plans.
     You cannot say the US policy is in tatters because it was not a proper strategy in the fist place

Perhaps the biggest loser from the fall of Ramadi was Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi with his policy for tackling IS now in tatters; A fact his political foes are only too happy to exploit for their own gains. 
  
Following the liberation of Tikrit in early April Abadi spoke with inflated confidence about the complete liberation of Salahuddin province before stating "now we turn to the West". The west has now all but fallen to IS. 

Prior to the recent humiliations in Anbar province Abadi had been trying to assert his authority over and desectarianise the Shia dominated militias - dubbed the Popular Mobilisation Forces - which led the conquest of Tikrit.        

Abadi along with his supporters in Washington were reluctant to send these predominantly Shia militias into the majority Sunni Anbar province despite repeated warnings that IS was a growing threat. 

That plan clearly backfired and the loss of Ramadi has undermined whatever influence Abadi had consolidated over the militias. What is more with the ISF once again proven a weak and unreliable force this amounts to a double hit to the Prime Minister's relevance on the battle field. 

Former Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki along with his allies in the two most powerful Shia militias; the Badr Organisation and Asa'ib Ahl al-Haq have publicly lambasted Abadi for not sending the militias into Anbar, blaming him for the fall of the province while demanding the popular mobilisation forces take over security from the army.

US policy takes a hammering

And so it has come to be, with those very forces, led by the Badr Organisation and Asa'ib Ahl al-Haq, at the forefront of the ranks lining up to challenge the emboldened IS fighters who are now fortifying and consolidating their gains across Anbar province. 

There are simply no other fighting groups in Iraq up to the job. The US has taken a similar battering to Abadi following the defeat in Ramadi.
     The militias have a part to play in this. As long as they are controlled by the central Iraqi government, then they will participate

Administration officials talk of a 'set back' but the truth is the policy of high altitude air strikes without serious coordination with a credible ground force has proven futile, if not counter-productive.

"You cannot say the US policy is in tatters because it was not a proper strategy in the fist place," said Afzal Ashraf, consultant fellow at the Royal United Services Institute. 

"An air campaign carried out in this way, without the proper ground support means once the strikes have passed it is as if they didn't happen”.

The political power play underway in Iraq further complicates Washington's dillema leading it into an awkward dance of alliance with its supposed adversaries in the region.

Although the popular mobilisation forces have won the support of some Sunni leaders and drawn Sunnis and minorities into their ranks they remain under the leadership of groups that are predominantly Shia and enjoy close links and coordination with Iran.

It the overt Iranian supervision in the Tikrit offensive that caused the US to refuse airstrikes until the militias withdrew and the ISF took control.

"I will not, and I hope we never, coordinate or cooperate with Shia militias," General Lloyd Austin, the head of Central Command, told Congress the day after the U.S. began launching airstrikes in Tikrit.

But as has been proven time and again it is only the militias that have the manpower, skill and coordination to take on IS, despite the huge amounts of US money that has been pumped into training and arming the ISF. 

Only after Baghdad officially requested the strikes, acting as a buffer between Washington and the militias, was the campaign resumed.

In the space of a couple of months the position on launching airstrikes in tandem with the militias ground operations has softened drastically with Pentagon spokesman Army Col. Steve Warren telling reporters, Monday, "The militias have a part to play in this. As long as they are controlled by the central Iraqi government, then they will participate."

The machinations of using the Baghdad government as an intermediary have clearly been established prior to the start of the mission to avoid the complications and delays experienced in Tikrit.

Arming the Sunnis?

Another stated policy of the US administration in tackling IS in Iraq has been to encourage the arming of the Sunni tribes on the ground.
     They were hung out to dry and were massacred by IS

Prime Minister Abadi also purported to support this strategy and during the speech in which he proclaimed "now we turn to the west" he personally handed out rifles to Sunni tribesmen who volunteered to join the popular mobilisation forces

On the ground however the weapons and support never arrived and those Sunnis who stood agianst IS in Ramadi and other corners of Anbar have paid a bloody price for it. Suspected 'collaborators' were rounded up and executed, whole families slaughtered.

"Politics failed because of the mistrust towards those Sunnis who are against IS. For 3 months they have been screaming 'we are going to be taken by IS we need arms and support'," said Maki Naxal, a journalist and historian from Falluja in Anbar province but now living in Jordan.

The feeling of betrayal runs deep and is compounded by a sense of Deja Vu. 

Ramadi’s local leaders were instrumental in the U.S.-backed Awakening Councils, which were credited with the demise of al Qaeda in Iraq in 2006 and 2007.

Their cooperation was built on on the promise of greater political and military inclusion in the future of Iraq, but that promise was never delivered and once Prime Minister Maliki was ushered back into power for a second term the Sunni tribes were cut adrift and the Awakening Councils sidelined from the security apparatus. 

"The first time around they were betrayed by being politically excluded but this time it was much worse. They were hung out to dry and were massacred by IS," Naxi told al-Araby al-Jadeed.

The US administration says it is "looking into" how best to support local ground forces in Anbar province, including "accelerating the training and equipping of local tribes," but with IS now the dominant force in the area it all amounts to too little too late. 

The residents of Anbar have seen the ruthlessness with which IS disposes of anyone who opposes them and are acutely aware of where the balance of power in the province now lies.

"There have been a wave of executions of any Sunnis considered as collabortors with the government or security services. It is now much more dangerous for Sunnis in Anbar to stand against IS,” explained Luay al-Khateeb, an Iraqi non-resident fellow at the Brookings Doha Center. 

Considering the failure of politics in Baghdad and the isolation of the Sunnis in Anbar there are no good options for the promised counter-offensive in Anbar. 

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