Shiite Muslim militias moved onto a government air base Monday in predominantly Sunni Muslim Anbar province in preparation for a counterattack on Ramadi as a battle brewed that will prove or disprove U.S. officials’ insistence that the Islamic State is on the defensive in Iraq.
Islamic State forces were said to be massing to meet the promised militia offensive, their arsenal bolstered by weapons, armored vehicles and tanks left behind when elite Iraqi government troops fled Ramadi on Sunday in the worst defeat for the Iraqi government since last summer’s loss of the northern city of Mosul.
Residents of Ramadi said hundreds of Islamic State fighters were streaming out of the city in the direction of the Habbaniyah air base, even as the leaders of the Shiite militias massing there said their offensive to retake the city was imminent. Jaafar al Husseini of the militia Kataeb Hezbollah told the Agence France-Presse news agency that he thought the announcement of an offensive to retake Ramadi would come “tomorrow, God willing.”
Officials in Washington voiced confidence that the militias and Iraqi government forces would retake the city and pledged to continue airstrikes against the Islamic State. They continued to downplay the loss of Ramadi, the capital of Iraq’s largest province, and called what had happened there a setback but not one that changed their narrative that the Islamic State is suffering under U.S.-led aerial bombing.
“This is something we’ve known is possible for some time,” said Army Col. Steve Warren, a Pentagon spokesman. “Ramadi has been surrounded for probably a year now.”
Using the Pentagon’s preferred acronym for the Islamic State, Warren added: “I think it’s notable that it took ISIL a year to get this far in Ramadi.”
Secretary of State John Kerry predicted that Iraqi forces would reclaim Ramadi in short order. “I am absolutely confident in the days ahead that will be reversed,” he said at a news conference in the South Korean capital of Seoul.
But there were many questions about whether even a large force of militias and Iraq military units would be able to win a sustained confrontation with Islamic State fighters, whose recent offensives have shown a mastery of infantry tactics that’s impressed analysts, combined with suicide bombings that proved difficult to defeat at Ramadi.
Photos posted on social media, and confirmed by Iraqi military officers as consistent with their knowledge, showed that at least 30 U.S.-supplied armored Humvees and at least 10 M1A1 Abrams battle tanks had fallen into Islamic State hands. Other photos released by the group showed large amounts of captured ammunition.
The Islamic State often has been better armed than its rivals in the Iraqi government, Shiite militias and Kurdish militias since last summer’s victories, thanks to its capture of military storehouses in Iraq and Syria after the June 10 fall of Mosul.
But the addition of new armored vehicles, especially U.S. Humvees, was particularly alarming. Islamic State militants reportedly have found the Humvee a chore to maintain but its armor makes it difficult to stop with small arms, which in turn makes it an ideal vehicle to turn into a suicide car bomb, the weapon that helped the Islamic State devastate Iraqi government positions in its Ramadi offensive.
In response to the Islamic State’s use of armored car bombs – which the military calls vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices, or VBIEDs – the United States said last week that it would rush new supplies of shoulder-fired rockets to Iraq.
The head of the Anbar provincial council, Sabah Karhout, said in a statement to McClatchy that the militias were gathering at the military base at Habbaniyah, about 10 miles outside Ramadi. He said several hundred Sunni tribal fighters aligned with the government were expected to join the Shiite militias in the operation.
Even as the militias threatened to retake Ramadi, the Islamic State was said to be on the offensive in two other key locations in Anbar: Karmah and Baghdadi. The loss of Karmah would leave the Islamic State in complete control of Fallujah – the largest city between Ramadi and the nation’s capital, Baghdad – and losing Baghdadi would isolate the garrison that’s holding one of Iraq’s largest infrastructure facilities, at the Haditha Dam.
Meanwhile, there was little word from Ramadi, where phone service has been extremely limited since the Islamic State victory over the weekend.
Only about 8,000 people fled the city of 500,000 to 900,000 – the U.N. put the number at 25,000 – thanks largely to Islamic State patrols that warned residents not to try to escape. Reports said the city’s streets were largely empty as residents remained in their homes.
Residents said Islamic State patrols were going door-to-door in search of government employees and others whose loyalty was suspect.
Residents described parades of victorious Islamic State fighters in armored vehicles, many of which still bore the insignia of the elite army units that had abandoned them over the weekend.
They said the Islamic State fighters were pouring out of the city in the direction of Habbaniyah to establish their positions for what most expect will be a fierce battle between the group and the Shiite militias. “Hundreds of Daash fighters are moving toward the base,” said one resident, using an Arabic acronym for the group. “We pray the fighting will not happen inside the city itself.”
One Iraqi security official said late Monday that skirmishes had already begun on the outskirts of Ramadi. The official said the Iraqi government had begun canceling some domestic flights out of Baghdad International Airport, about 60 miles away, because of concerns that stray rounds might strike passenger jets or the Islamic State might target commercial airliners.
James Rosen in Washington, McClatchy special correspondent John Zarocostas in Geneva and special correspondents in Irbil and Baghdad, whose identities are being withheld for security reasons, contributed to this report.