The use of Shia militias to try to take back the Iraqi city of Ramadi from Islamic State risks unleashing more sectarian bloodletting, current and former US officials said, but Washington and Baghdad appear to have few other options.
The prospect of Iranian-backed militias leading efforts to retake Ramadi underlines Washington's dwindling options to defeat Islamic State in Iraq, with prime minister Haider al-Abadi's grip on power weak, a national army still in its infancy and Tehran increasingly assertive.
Islamic State's capture of Ramadi, despite months of US-led air strikes and military advice, marked a fresh low for the shattered Iraqi army, which beat a chaotic retreat from the city over the weekend. Mr Abadi immediately turned to the Shia militia groups, backed by Iran, which together have become the most powerful military force in Iraq since the national army first collapsed last June in the face of sweeping Islamic State gains.
A column of 3,000 Shia militia fighters arrived on Monday at a military base near Ramadi, the capital of Sunni-majority Anbar province that has long been a centre of opposition to Iraq’s Shia-led government.
One US official, speaking on condition of anonymity, described Ramadi as “a powder keg” and said any use of militia has “got to be dealt with very, very delicately.”
“There’s the potential it can go very, very badly,” the official said, without predicting such an outcome.
US officials said Washington was deeply divided about the involvement of Shia militias with links to Iran, a US rival that has been expanding its influence throughout the Middle East. After spearheading the recapture of Tikrit, some Shia fighters last month went on a spree of burning, looting, and violence in the Sunni Iraqi city, according to local residents.
“There are people in our government who see any involvement of Iran as anathema. There are others who say the Shia involvement will promote sectarian violence. There are others who say that’s not true,” a second US official said on condition of anonymity.
One US intelligence official said one concern was that Islamic State could use the involvement of Shia militias to itself stir up sectarian hatred.
But the reality, analysts said, is that Iraq’s government does not appear to have enough Sunni forces at its disposal to make an assault on Ramadi.
US president Barack Obama reluctantly started bombing Islamic State targets last year after it seized swathes of Iraq but he has made clear his desire not to let US troops get sucked back into a conflict he vowed to end when he first ran for president.
The loss of Ramadi comes a month after Mr Obama gave Mr Abadi a warm welcome in Washington, backing the Shia politician to bridge Iraq’s sectarian divide and forge a strong national army to take the fight to Islamic State.