by: Theodore Bell and Patrick Martin
Key Takeaway: ISIS’s seizure of Ramadi city May 15-18 has altered disposition of the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) in Anbar province and challenges the Iraqi government’s ability to mount successful counteroffensives. The two primary military positions remaining in Anbar after Ramadi’s fall are Habaniya, east of Ramadi and al-Asad airbase, west of Hit. As of May 27 “thousands” of Shi’a militia members continue to arrive at the Habaniya base following the Iraqi Prime Minister’s call for the Popular Mobilization Commission to prepare for operations in Anbar. In contrast, the ISF in al-Asad airbase are supplemented by Sunni tribal fighters undergoing training by U.S. personnel. It remains to be seen how the Iraqi government will integrate the efforts of its forces at al-Asad and Habaniya bases to mutually beneficial effect, especially in light of the U.S. presence at al-Asad and the Iranian-backed militias' presence at Habaniya. On May 26 the Popular Mobilization Commission launched a joint operation with the ISF to recapture parts of Ramadi as well as northern and western Salah ad-Din. As of May 29 the ISF is contesting southern Ramadi and the ISF and the Popular Mobilization, including Iranian-backed Shi'a militias, have reported successes east of Fallujah, south of Samarra, and south of the Baiji Oil Refinery. The Iranian-backed Shi’a militias now play a prominent role in the province. These developments may also compromise the U.S. role in Anbar, a high risk given the presence of U.S. personnel at al-Asad airbase.
The coordinated ISIS attack on Ramadi city on May 15 followed a near 18-month effort by ISIS to capture the city from the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF). At the time of the attack the ISF units that had held the city's defenses included Iraqi Army (IA) units, the IA 1stRapid Intervention Division forces, the Federal Police, the Iraqi Police(IP), the Counter Terrorism Service (CTS), to include Emergency Response Brigade (ERB) forces, and were supported by local anti-ISIS Iraqi Sunni tribal fighters. The coordinated ISIS assault on downtown Ramadi initially targeted neighborhoods between Iraqi government and ISF locations in Ramadi city in an effort to disrupt ISF responses to the attack, which had proven successful at repelling ISIS many times in the past. On May 15 ISF forces at the Government Complex in central Ramadi withdrew to the Anbar Operations Command in the north of the city. ISIS managed to combine its coordinated assault on Ramadi city with operations elsewhere in Iraq on May 15, pressuring the ISF in multiple locations simultaneously. In Garma, northeast of Fallujah, ISIS also seized the Harairat factories area and also launched an attack on the IA 1stRapid Intervention Division HQ at Camp Mazraa, east of Fallujah. ISIS also launched an attack on Jubbavillage, north of Baghdadi sub-district from “all sides”, seizing vehicles and equipment. ISIS also managed to continue its siege of the residential complex in Baghdadi.
Despite the reported arrival of Golden Division, SWAT, and IA reinforcements in the vicinity of Ramadi late on May 15, ISIS continued to consolidate control over the city on May 16-17. On May 16, ISF in the 8th Brigade Headquarters held a defensive posture as ISIS attacked their positions in northwest Ramadi while forces at the Justice Palace and at Anbar Terrorism Directorate in the center of the city remained under siege. On May 17, ISIS took control of the AOC HQ while ISF withdrew to the “7km” area west of Ramadi. In the east, the ISF blocked the road between Habaniya base and Ramadi to prevent an attack by ISIS on the base while ISIS launched indirect fire on the nearby Khaldiya sub-district. Confronted with deteriorating security, the Prime Minister directed the Popular Mobilization Commission (PMC) to prepare for an operation in Anbar. Meanwhile, the Joint Operations Command (JOC) stated that the Prime Minister directed the “Popular Mobilization” and “all Jihadi factions” in a likely reference to the various factions of Shi’a militias, to prepare to enter Ramadi. Militias such as Kata’ib Hezbollah (KH) and the Nujaba Movement (NM) ordered their members to be on alert and for those on leave to return to duty in preparation for an operation in Anbar. Badr Organization leader Hadi al-Amiri and Federal Police (FP) commander Raid Shaker Jawdat reportedly arrived the Habaniya base to oversee operations. On May 19, the Iraqi Ministry of Defense circulated a video of ISF helicopters evacuating besieged ISF members from the Malab suburb of Ramadi.
By May 18 “thousands” of Shi’a militia members had arrived at the Habaniya base alongside the ISF. On May 21 Minister of Defense Khalid al-Obeidi and senior Ministry of Defense (MoD) officials visited the Habaniya base and met with ISF and “Popular Mobilization” leaders, speaking to the high-level interest in and visibility of the fight for Anbar. On May 23 the ISF, "Popular Mobilization" forces, and anti-ISIS Iraqi Sunni tribal fighters launched an offensive against the Husayba area east of Ramadi. The "Popular Mobilization" reportedly including Iranian-backed Shi'a militias, deployed in substantial numbers to prevent ISIS from entering Habaniya, Husayba, and Khalidiya areas, east of Ramadi. On May 23, five Emergency Response Brigade (ERB) battalions arrived at the Habaniya base and proceededwith “Popular Mobilization” forces to Khalidiya as further “Popular Mobilization” and FP reinforcements arrived in Khalidiya. The ISF, including the Iraqi Police (IP), the Iraqi Army (IA), and the ERBs, together with tribal fighters and the “Popular Mobilization,” recaptured Husayba, Madiq, al-Kisara, and Sheikh Masoud areas east of Ramadi. On May 24, the Khalidiya local chairman statedthat the ISF controlled Khalidiya and Habaniya sub-district and called on internally displaced persons (IDPs) from those areas to return to their homes. The IA and the “Popular Mobilization” also recaptured al-Ankur area, south of Ramadi and the ISF and the “Popular Mobilization” also advanced towardSura, al-Sufiya, and al-Zaraa areas east of Ramadi, recapturing a hospital in al-Sijariya, area east of Ramadi.
On May 26 the Popular Mobilization Commission announced the start of the “Labaik Ya Hussein” (“We Are Here for You, Hussein”) operation, which aims to liberate “northern Salah ad-Din and southeast of Tikrit, extending to northeast of Ramadi.” The the operation was renamed“Labaik ya Iraq” (“We Are Here for You, Iraq”) the following day after the previous name was widely criticized as sectarian, since it refers to a historically important Shi’a religious figure. Iraqi state TV statedthat the IA and “Popular Mobilization” forces had started moving toward Ramadi city (on May 27). Separately, Anbar police commander Maj. Gen. Hadi Razij statedthat the ISF, and the “Popular Mobilization”, and tribal fighters would participate in the operation to liberate Ramadi and that it will launch on three axes: from Madiq area in the east, from the Kilo 135 Area in the west, and from Albu Faraj, Albu Jalib, and Jazeerat Anbar areas in the north. Anbar provincial council member Athal al-Fahdawi stated that the ISF had cut off ISIS supply lines “south of Ramadi” and Maj. Gen. Razij later stated that the IA, IP, and “Popular Mobilization” had surroundedRamadi and were advancing from the east and the south.
Over May 26-27 the ISF and “Popular Mobilization” forces launchedindirect fire on Ramadi city began contesting Anbar University and the al-Tash and Humeira areas south of Ramadi, clashing with ISIS fighters who detonated SVESTs. The elite Golden Division (GD) reportedly clashed with ISIS at Anbar University, killing seven ISIS members wearing SVESTs. The Anbar police chief stated that the ISF also launched operations to recapture Ta’mim, north of Anbar University and arrested “tens” of non-Iraqi ISIS members.
The anti-ISIS fight has been augmented by the introduction of the “Popular Mobilization” and Shi’a militias into Ramadi’s security plan, but it may also be fundamentally undermined by their arrival. These forces now play dominant roles in anti-ISIS operations in Garma, northeast of Fallujah and in south of Fallujah, joint offensives with the ISF that are credited with early successes. This posture largely reverses the gains that the ISF experienced after the fall of Tikrit in reasserting their dominance over the militias. Meanwhile ISF units supported by the U.S. remain in control of Hadithaal-Asad airbase and Baghdadi in western Anbar, positions that used to constitute the strategic reinforcement to Ramadi from the west when ISIS previously attacked the city. ISIS has pre-empted their eastward assault by launching coordinated and persistent attacks on the two locations between May 17 and May 26. The arrival of the militias further complicates ISF-driven operations supported by U.S. airstrikes from western Anbar to help retake Ramadi. The next steps in the Iraqi government’s anti-ISIS fight must therefore be understood in the context of the new ISF disposition in Anbar, in which Ramadi-based units have withdrawn to Habaniya and are guarding the road to Baghdad with tribal fighters and “Popular Mobilization” elements, including lethal Iranian-backed Shi’a militias that are not commanded and controlled by the Prime Minister.
Graphical Note: The yellow coloring on the May 15, 17, and 24 maps is meant to highlight the most notweorthy element of the ISF deployment for the viewer.