U.S. military officials confirm Iraqi Security Forces were moving against ISIS in Ramadi on Tuesday in a drive to break the hold of ISIS on the provincial capital of Anbar province. Moving from south of the city, the Iraqi forces threw up an “improvised ribbon bridge” across a branch of the Euphrates River called the Thar Thar canal to hit defenders on the flank, said Army Col. Steve Warren, a spokesman for Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve in Baghdad.
Iraqi aircraft dropped leaflets over the city telling civilians to leave ahead of a final assault, and Iraqi generals were quoted in Western news media as saying they expected Ramadi to fall within 72 hours. The fall of Ramadi would mark a major setback for ISIS as well as a comeback for the Iraqi Security Forces, which fled the city last May leaving behind equipment and uniforms as ISIS advanced behind vehicle borne improvised explosive devices.
Warren said the Iraqi forces who surrounded the city were Sunni, including tribal fighters trained by the U.S. The central government of Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi kept Iraqi Shia militias backed by Iran out of the fight for Ramadi to avoid friction with the mostly Sunni population of Anbar province. ISIS was attempting to portray the Iraqi Security Forces advances as a “sectarian fight,” and he disclosed a leaflet handed over to the U.S. by the ISF which purported to be instructions from ISIS commanders to the rank and file on how to flee nearby Fallujah if it also came under attack. Last week, President Obama said that ISIS has “has lost about 40 percent of the populated areas it once controlled in Iraq.”
Six hundred to 1,000 Islamic State fighters were said to have been in Ramadi when the overall offensive began two weeks ago, but several hundred of them have been killed in fighting and airstrikes since then, according to Iraqi and Western officials. Those remaining did not appear to be giving up easily. Iraqi forces, including a mix of soldiers and policemen along with a contingent of Sunni tribal fighters, faced heavy fire and were assaulted by car bombs, Iraqi officials said.
In early April, Iraqi forces and Shiite militias drove the Islamic State out of the city of Tikrit, and in October retook control of the northern city of Baiji and its oil refinery. Last month, Kurdish and Yazidi forces assaulted the northern city of Sinjar, driving out fighters with the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL. Ramadi fell to the Islamic State in May, in a sudden collapse after a long battle that exposed multiple weaknesses in the government’s ability to fight the militants, including stark military shortfalls and disorganization, and an unwillingness by the government to arm or send reinforcements to help Sunni tribesmen who were fighting the militants.
SITE, a research group that monitors jihadist communications, said that on Tuesday, some supporters of the Islamic State were seeking to play down the importance of the Ramadi battle, circulating photographs that it said showed a calm city. Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter had offered to deploy Apache attack helicopters to aid the Iraqi government’s effort. But so far, Mr. Abadi, under pressure from Shiite groups and Iran to keep the United States at a distance, has not accepted the offer, Iraqi officials said.