Iraqi military and other pro-government forces on Tuesday launched an offensive, spearheaded by Shiite Muslim militias, to take back Ramadi from Islamic State fighters who seized the city last week.
The state-run media quoted the military command as saying “wide-ranging” operations commenced to “liberate” Ramadi, about 60 miles west of Baghdad, the Iraqi capital.
There were no immediate reports of major battles along an extensive front line that has been experiencing periodic skirmishes since the Al Qaeda breakaway faction overran Ramadi, sending pro-government forces scattering.
The loss of Ramadi was a major setback for the U.S.-backed government of Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Abadi. Although pro-government forces outnumbered the attackers, Iraqi soldiers abandoned their fighting positions in Ramadi, leaving behind heavy weapons and ammunition for the extremists.
But Abadi denied U.S. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter’s comments to CNN that Iraqi defenders had “lost the will to fight.” Carter’s remarks outraged many in Iraq, where thousands of pro-government fighters have lost their lives in the almost yearlong struggle against Islamic State.
In a BBC interview this week, Abadi vowed to take back Ramadi within days.
On Tuesday, the White House lauded Baghdad’s plans to regain Ramadi, seeking to mollify some of the anger in Iraq that followed the Pentagon chief’s scathing assessment.
“I think that is a clear indication of the will of the Iraqi security forces to fight,” White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said of the plan to recapture Ramadi. “And the United States and our coalition partners will stand with them as they do so.”
The White House said none of the Iraqi forces who fled from Ramadi had been recently trained by U.S. or coalition forces assisting the Iraqi military.
A key role in the battle for Ramadi will fall to the so-called Popular Mobilization Units, composed largely of Shiite militiamen widely regarded as among Iraq’s most effective fighting forces. They are highly motivated to confront Islamic State, an ultra-fundamentalist Sunni Muslim group that regards Shiites as heretics and regularly executes Shiite captives.
Baghdad concluded that the participation of the enthusiastic Shiite irregulars was essential to take back Ramadi. The need overrode fear that their presence could inflame sectarian tension in Ramadi, capital of Anbar province, regarded as Iraq’s Sunni heartland.
“Our victories will be quick because our preparations are strong,” Ahmed Assadi, a spokesman for the Popular Mobilization Units, said at a news briefing in Baghdad.
Highlighting the presence of the largely Shiite force, the spokesman said the operation to take Ramadi is being named after Hussein, a revered figure in Shiite Islam.
In Washington, Col. Steve Warren, a Pentagon spokesman, called the title “unhelpful.”
As Iraqi forces announced their planned offensive, warplanes of the U.S.-led coalition began carrying out airstrikes in Ramadi’s vicinity. The Pentagon described the undertaking as “shaping operations” before the expected government onslaught.
The White House has begun expediting delivery to Iraqi forces of high-powered weaponry, such as antitank missiles that can destroy armored vehicles, which Islamic State often employs as car bombs.
Iraqi forces’ hasty withdrawal from Ramadi mirrored their much larger collapse in June as Islamic State forces seized the northern city of Mosul and other parts of Iraq. The setbacks highlight how the Iraqi military continues to underperform even though Washington spent $25 billion to train, arm and equip the country’s security forces from 2003 to 2011.
The Pentagon determined last year that 26 of the Iraqi army’s 50 brigades were able to fight Islamic State. The rest were deemed to have collapsed in combat with the militants or been tainted by sectarianism and corruption.
In the last year, Washington has deployed 3,100 military personnel to try to rebuild the shattered Iraqi military into a force that can repel Islamic State.
“It’s been a tough week for us — the loss of Ramadi was particularly difficult,” said a coalition trainer in Iraq, who was not authorized to speak on the record. “The battle here is as psychological as it is anything else.”
Although Iraqi forces have predicted a quick victory in Ramadi, many analysts have cautioned that the operation could take weeks or months. Urban warfare can be a challenging struggle fought street by street, and Islamic State has proved adept at slowing down attackers with strategically placed snipers and booby traps.
Ramadi once had a population of almost 500,000, though years of conflict have led many residents to flee. Tens of thousands of civilians have left since Islamic State militants overran the city last week.
Anbar province was a hotbed of Sunni insurgents fighting American forces after the U.S.-led invasion in 2003 that overthrew the government of Saddam Hussein, a Sunni. Hundreds of American troops were killed or injured in the area before U.S. forces pulled out of Iraq in 2011.
McDonnell reported from Beirut and Hennigan from Washington. Special correspondent Nabih Bulos in Beirut contributed to this report.
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