The Islamic State on Friday took control of the provincial government center of Ramadi, the capital of Iraq’s largest province, and appeared to be in control of most of the city in a major defeat for the Iraqi government.
Islamic State forces also appeared to be closing in on government positions in two other key locations in Anbar province, the towns of Baghdadi and Karmah, in a broad offensive that if successful would end the government presence in all of the province’s major population centers. The capture of Baghdadi also would cut the supply lines to the Iraqi garrison protecting the strategic Haditha Dam.
U.S. officials offered conflicting views of the events, with the State Department and the Pentagon at first downplaying the significance of what had taken place. But a later statement from the White House made clear that the situation was urgent and that the United States was rushing shipments of heavy weapons, ammunition and supplies to Iraq to deal with the Islamic State advance.
The new weapons shipments will include an unspecified number of shoulder-fired rockets especially useful in blasting car bombs, which the Islamic State used particularly effectively in its Ramadi offensive.
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The new weapons shipments came after Vice President Joe Biden spoke with Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al Abadi, according to the statement, which said Biden thanked Abadi for "his steadfast leadership . . . at a time of significant security challenges, including today's ISIL attack on Ramadi."
"The vice president assured the prime minister of continued and expedited U.S. security assistance to confront ISIL," the statement said, using the government's preferred acronym for the Islamic State.
At Ramadi, government troops reportedly were still fighting in some isolated areas. But the city was essentially under the control of the Islamic State after a fierce assault that began with a series of car bombs on Iraqi government security facilities overnight. By late afternoon, security forces appeared to be in full flight as militants consolidated control over the area and prevented anyone from leaving.
The Islamic State’s black flag was flying over the governor’s compound, witnesses said, and a Ramadi resident reported that an Islamic State victory statement was being read from the public address systems atop mosque minarets in the city, warning people not to try to leave. Cellphone service appeared to have been cut in much of the area.
“Daash is now in full control of the central government compound of Ramadi, and battles are now raging in the last Ramadi areas held by government troops,” said a security officer inside one of the last remaining pockets of government resistance, using the common Arabic acronym for the Islamic State. He asked not to be identified for security reasons and said he expected either to be forced to flee or to be captured by the militants in the coming hours.
“Daash has surrounded the Anbar operations center and heavy fighting is taking place near the headquarters of operations,” said the officer, who was inside the operations center. Gunfire and explosions could be heard over his phone line.
Hours later, the officer’s cellphone went unanswered, and efforts to contact other government facilities or even local residents grew increasingly difficult.
Residents and security officials confirmed that not only was the Islamic State blocking residents from leaving the area, but it had been going house to house gathering mobile phones of residents and had executed at least 50 pro-government tribal fighters as well as several top tribal leaders as they took control of the area.
Another police officer, who asked not be named because he expected to be captured shortly, said that residents who’d fled their homes “are begging anyone to save them after the Iraqi government abandoned them because of fears that Daash will massacre their sons.”
U.S. officials initial comments on the events suggested Washington was slow to grasp the significance of the onslaught.
At the State Department, spokesman Jeff Rathke conceded that the situation in Ramadi and other Anbar locations was dire, but he suggested nothing unexpected had taken place. “We’ve said before that there will be good days and bad days. ISIL is trying to make today a bad day in Ramadi,” he told reporters.
The U.S. military’s assessment seemed even more divorced from events. Marine Corps Brig. Gen. Thomas Weidley, the No. 2 American commander in the anti-Islamic State effort called Operation Inherent Resolve, even insisted that the situation in Ramadi remained positive for the U.S.-backed Iraqi government, calling the Islamic State advance “temporary gains in the east and south of the city” and rejecting eyewitness reports that the Islamic State's black flag was flying over the city's main government building.
Only hours later, when the White House released its account of Biden's conversation with Abadi did the Obama administration indicate the seriousness of what had taken place.
The catastrophe at Ramadi began late Thursday when a wave of suicide car bombs – at least six, according to witnesses – began to strike key fortifications around the center of the government compound, which had been holding out under occasional siege since January 2014, when the Islamic State and a host of anti-government Sunni Muslim tribes took control of much of the surrounding countryside.
One police officer told McClatchy that the Islamic State used armored bulldozers to move blast walls and other fortifications to clear the way for the wave of suicide bombers in vehicles, who then decimated much of the city center’s defenses.
Security officials, while begging Baghdad commanders for immediate reinforcements, air support and help with evacuation, said they were moving as many of their routed troops and other civilians from pro-government tribes to a stadium on the outskirts of town in the hopes of evacuating them by air. The stadium, to the south of the city, was being protected by the Iraqi army’s elite Golden Brigade, one of the last combat-effective units available to the government in the area. But some residents from tribes not directly affiliated with the government said the soldiers were preventing many civilians from reaching the last safe haven because of fears that Islamic State militants were hiding among them.
Movement in Ramadi, as well as suburban areas around both Ramadi and Fallujah, has become increasingly difficult as the Islamic State appeared intent on preventing townspeople from fleeing their advance, an echo of Thursday’s audio tape by Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, who said it was obligatory for all Muslims to remain behind and live in the new caliphate.
“If Ramadi completely falls and the Islamic State prevents civilians from leaving, (this is) a fulfillment of the essence of (Baghdadi’s) words yesterday,” said Aymenn al Tamimi, an analyst of jihadist groups for the Philadelphia-based Middle East Forum. “(Baghdadi) wanted a (military) breakthrough and this is it.”
Hannah Allam and James Rosen in Washington and special correspondents in Ramadi, Fallujah and Irbil, whose identities are being withheld for security reasons, contributed to this report.