Iraq deploys tanks as Islamic State tightens grip on Ramadi

White House says US-led air campaign would back multi-sectarian Iraqi forces

An Iraqi fighter from the Shia Muslim Al-Abbas popular mobilisation unit in  the embattled Anbar province. Photograph: Mohammed Sawaf/AFP/Getty Images

An Iraqi fighter from the Shia Muslim Al-Abbas popular mobilisation unit in the embattled Anbar province. Photograph: Mohammed Sawaf/AFP/Getty Images

 

Iraqi security forces deployed tanks and artillery around Ramadi yesterday to confront Islamic State fighters who have captured the city in a major defeat for the Baghdad government and its western backers.

After Ramadi fell on Sunday, Shia militiamen allied to the Iraqi army had advanced to a nearby base in preparation for a counterattack on the city, which lies in Anbar province just 110km (70 miles) northwest of Baghdad.

As pressure mounted for action to retake the city, a local government official urged Ramadi residents to join the police and the army for what the Shia militiamen said would be the “Battle of Anbar”.

The White House said a US-led air campaign would back multi-sectarian Iraqi forces in their attempt to regain Ramadi, whose fall exposed the limits of US airpower in its battle against the radical Sunni Islamic State.

 

US support

“The United States will be very supportive of multi-sectarian efforts who are taking command-and-control orders from the Iraqi central government,” White House spokesman Josh Earnest said in Washington.

 

The United States is anxious that the Shi’ite militia are controlled by the Iraqi authorities rather than Iranian advisers. It is likewise worried that the fighting in Iraq will become a polarising clash between Shi’ites and Sunnis.

Islamic State fighters set up defensive positions and laid landmines, witnesses said. The Islamists were also going house to house searching for members of the police and armed forces and said they would set up courts based on Islamic Sharia law.

They released about 100 prisoners from the counter-terrorism detention centre in the city.The move could prove popular with residents who have complained that people are often subject to arbitrary detention.

Sami Abed Saheb (37), a Ramadi restaurant owner, said IS found 30 women and 71 men in the detention centre. They had been shot in the feet to prevent them escaping when their captors fled.

Witnesses said the black flag of IS was flying over the main mosque, government offices and other prominent buildings in Ramadi. IS also promised that food, medicine and doctors would soon be available.

The decision by prime minister Haider al-Abadi, who is Shia, to send in the militia, known as Hashid Shaabi or Popular Mobilisation, to try to retake the predominantly Sunni city could add to sectarian hostility in one of the most violent parts of Iraq.

 

Sunni tribes

The Abadi government had pledged to equip and train pro-government Sunni tribes with a view to replicating the model applied during the “surge” campaign of 2006-2007, when US marines turned the tide against al-Qaeda fighters – forerunners of IS – by arming and paying local tribes in a movement known as the “Anbar Awakening”.

 

But a repeat will be more difficult. Sunni tribal leaders complain that the government was not serious about arming them again.

Reuters