BAGHDAD // After months of sluggish progress, stalled advances and outright failures, Iraqi troops and militias backed by US-led airstrikes have surrounded the key city of Ramadi and appear poised to launch a new attempt to wrest it from ISIL.
The impending battle threatens to turn into a drawn-out siege, with thousands of residents caught in the middle as Iraqi forces try to wear down the militants who took over the capital of western Anbar province in May. Western officials and analysts have warned that the strategy of a methodical, slow siege could make the fight even more difficult.
On Monday, the Iraqi military dropped leaflets into the city, telling the remaining residents – estimated at anywhere from 4,000 to 10,000 – to leave, the strongest signal yet that an assault is imminent.
But residents said on Tuesday that the militants have clamped down, setting up checkpoints across the city to monitor civilians’ movements and prevent anyone from going.
“Loudspeakers from mosques give warnings that civilians are not allowed to leave, and anyone who tries to do so will be either arrested or killed,” one resident said.
Ramadi, like the rest of Anbar province, is overwhelmingly Sunni. The minority community complains of discrimination by the Shiite-led government in Baghdad and some Sunnis in other parts of Anbar and northern Iraq welcomed ISIL rule, at least initially.
Resentment of the extremists has been stronger in Ramadi, but some residents worry about the cost of dislodging the ISIL.
“Of course we want this to end,” another resident said, referring to ISIL rule and the government siege. But he said he also fears increased airstrikes and clashes, with him and his family unable to escape.
Ramadi is part of a large swath of territory ISIL holds in Iraq, including almost all of Anbar province and the northern city of Mosul, linked with areas of northern and eastern Syria.
For several months, Iraqi troops and an umbrella group of militias – mainly Shiites – have been fighting in Anbar. Although progress was often slow, they clawed back territory surrounding the city. In recent days, their determination to retake Ramadi has been boosted by a victory in northern Iraq by Kurdish forces, who recaptured the strategic town of Sinjar.
The most recent estimates from the US-led coalition say there could be as many as 1,000 ISIL fighters inside Ramadi. Iraqi officials said their forces surrounding the city number several thousand.
The encirclement of Ramadi is a key first step in retaking it, said interior ministry spokesman Saad Maan. Iraqi forces will start clearing the city of ISIL “in the coming days, less than a week,” he added.
“The aim is to cut off all supplies to Daesh,” said Brig Gen Ahmed Al Bilawi, who commands a unit within the Anbar command. “We are just awaiting the zero hour to attack the centre of the city of Ramadi in order to free it.”
But a long siege could just allow the ISIL fighters to dig in more, said retired Lt Gen Mark Hertling, who led US forces in Iraq in 2007-08 as they fought to end sectarian warfare that pushed the country to the brink of civil war.
Iraqi commanders believe ISIL fighters “will use up ammunition, run out of food and, especially, water”, Lt Gen Hertling said. But that will take some time, which ISIL can “take advantage of” to carpet the city with homemade bombs, build tunnels to avoid airstrikes and move valuable assets out of the area.
Meanwhile, Gen Joseph Dunford, chairman of the US joint chiefs of staff, said Iraqi forces have been “tightening the noose” around Ramadi, but that it will probably be “months from now” before they launch an operation to retake Mosul.
An issue slowing the Anbar offensive has been the role of Shiite militiamen who make up the bulk of the fighters who joined Iraqi forces on the ground. These militiamen have been key to many government victories but are also accused of widespread abuses against Sunnis in areas retaken from ISIL.
While the central government has vowed to arm pro-government Sunni tribesmen in Anbar, few have received weapons.
A Western coalition official, who has knowledge of the Iraqi forces’ level of preparedness, said an operation in Ramadi will probably involve high casualties – something that the Iraqis “aren’t willing to accept” at this point.
When Mr Maan was asked about the high number of civilians that could be trapped inside Ramadi once the fight gets underway, the interior ministry spokesman said he was confident they would be able to flee “to a safe place.”
“We are focusing now on the enemy only,” he added.
* Associated Press