The liberation of Ramadi from the Islamic State (IS) by the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) is a morale booster for Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi, whose record had been damaged last May by the city’s fall to the IS. After the Iraqi forces had spent all of 2014 and most of 2015 being vanquished in city after city by the militants, this victory, while regaining some lost ground for the government, is more significant, however, as a symbolic blow to the IS, several of whose fighters have reportedly deserted.
Yet, Ramadi may well become a turning point in the fight against the IS in Iraq. For now, the nuances of the ISF’s victory — or the details of its modus operandi — are somewhat obscure. This may be a cause for concern as Baghdad prepares to launch a similar operation against the much bigger and more important city of Mosul in the north. The pertinent question is what role, if any, the Shi’ite militias played in Ramadi. While Baghdad and Washington give the impression that they had been sidelined, there are contradictory voices on the ground. Mosul, like Ramadi, is heavily Sunni-dominated and the Tikrit experience showed Shi’ite militias may inflict reprisals when liberating a Sunni city.
Besides, there’s a view that the actual fighting was done by an elite counter-terrorism commando force while the ISF only provided support. Given how al-Abadi depends on the Ramadi victory to vindicate his decision to rebuild a defeated and demoralised ISF, clarity on the ISF’s actual role and strength is needed.
Ramadi is also a testament to the brutality of life and war in IS territory. The city is so completely destroyed — buildings have also been booby-trapped by the retreating militants — that the thousands who have fled cannot return any time soon. The government must see to it that reconstruction work is undertaken on a war-footing too.