Iraq Launches Offensive to Force ISIS Out of Anbar

offensive-anbar

The Iraqi army Tuesday launched an offensive to recapture Ramadi and drive the militant group ISIS out of Anbar province.

The operation was announced by the Iraqi defence minister via state-owned channel Iraqiya TV and in a statement from Hashd al-Shaabi, a coalition of Shia fighters who are spearheading the offensive.

Ahmed al-Assadi, a spokesman for Hashd al-Shaabi and a member of the Iraqi parliament, said that the Iraqi forces had surrounded Ramadi from three sides and that the operation to retake the city will "not last for a long time".

Iraqi prime minister Haider al-Abadi was similarly optimistic ahead of the offensive, telling the BBC that the city could be retaken within days.

Ramadi, the capital of Anbar which is Iraq's largest province, fell last week after a series of suicide bomb attacks which were coordinated by just a few hundred Isis fighters, who cooperated with sleeper cells resident inside the city. It is located in Iraq's Sunni heartland and lies just 105km (65 miles) from the Iraqi capital, Baghdad.

According to the Hashd statement, the offensive will also spread across Salahuddin province which lies north of Ramadi.

The forces are to attempt to liberate Baiji oil refinery, the largest in the country, and cut off the militants' supply lines before attacking the city. According to Iraqi news agency Shafaq, government troops have already reached the refinery and are being assisted there by some 1,000 tribal fighters.

The operation is ostensibly being led by Iraqi government troops, supported by Shia militias and some 4,000 Salahuddin citizens, some of whom may be tribespeople. The announcement was welcomed by US vice president Joe Biden, with America pledging its full support to the operation. Washington officials have previously said they are considering arming Sunni tribes directly due to suspicions surrounding the Iranian-backed militias, which have been accused of human rights abuses.

However, the offensive has been named after the Shia spiritual leader Hussein, suggesting that Shia forces are the driving force behind the operation.

Benjamin Decker, senior intelligence analyst at Middle East security consultancy the Levantine Group, says this Shia patronage indicates the potential sectarian fallout of a military operation led primarily by Shia forces in a Sunni-majority province.

"What this means is that for the Shia militias, they are ready to supposedly die for their country and for Iraq. At the same time, the Sunni identity of Ramadi and other areas of Anbar makes this a very tricky position. In the event they do take the city, there will be looting, more sectarian violence and that could lead some residents to either rejoining or trying to join Isis in localised guerilla bombing-type attacks," says Decker.

As well as potential sectarian implications, the Ramadi offensive is fraught with problems for the US-led coalition, which does not wish to be seen as cooperating with Iranian-backed forces. Earlier this year, the operation to recapture Tikrit was delayed when Shia-led militias suspended their offensive in protest at US-led airstrikes.

Washington's commitment to the fight has been questioned in recent days by Qassem Soleimani, a revered military commander who formerly led the elite Quds force in the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and has been crucial in masterminding the role of Shia militias in Iraq.

Soleimani told Iranian media that the US didn't do a "damn thing" to prevent Isis from taking Ramadi and added that Iran and its allies were the sole sources of resistance against the jihadists.

"Qassem Soleimani remains at the centre of Iran's PR strategy in Iraq," says Torbjorn Soltvedt, deputy head of MENA at UK-based analysts Verisk Maplecroft. "His very visible presence on the ground in Iraq reflects not only Iran's role in coordinating Shia militias but also the country's efforts to portray Iran as the main bulwark against Isis in the region."

According to the UN, around 55,000 people have fled Ramadi since the city was captured by Isis, with most fleeing to Baghdad. People are also leaving Anbar province for Iraqi Kurdistan, with more than 1.7 million refugees now resident in the semi-autonomous region and Anbar government officials calling on the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) to open a safe passage for a further 500,000 persons fleeing the conflict.