Chicago Tribune: The capture of Ramadi from the Islamic State

DEC. 29, 2015 — If you want to identify a recent low point in the war against the Islamic State, go back to May when the ineffectual Iraqi military cut and ran from Ramadi, a Sunni town just 70 miles west of Baghdad. They abandoned their equipment and fled. The Iraqis “showed no will to fight,” U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter said.

With that embarrassing defeat, the U.S. strategy for arming and training Iraqi soldiers to defend their country was left exposed as an apparent failure.

Six months later, revived with training, equipment and deadly air support from a U.S.-led coalition, the Iraqi military force found the will and capacity to win. Iraqi troops, bolstered by Sunni tribal fighters, on Monday expelled Islamic State fighters from Ramadi’s government center and appeared to be in control of much of the rest of the city.

Now it’s the enemy that’s falling back, and for the first time the world can contemplate that the tide may finally be turning against the Islamic State, at least in Iraq.

The significance here, beyond a morale-boosting victory, is that Iraqi security forces did the ground fighting themselves, learning how to take on the Islamic State’s challenging combination of disciplined fighters and suicide bombers. The U.S. played a big role in support, carrying out more than 630 air strikes in the area in the past six months while providing training, advice and specialized bulldozers and other equipment to clear bombs and booby traps, the Pentagon said.

The Iraqis never should have lost Ramadi, of course, or Fallujah or Mosul, two cities seared in U.S. consciousness as costly battles during the Iraq War. Iraq lost those cities in 2014. Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city and the Islamic State’s de facto capital in Iraq, will be particularly difficult to reclaim. But Iraq’s military has been bolstered to the point that Mideast experts can envision a fighting force that might be capable of pulling that off.

“I think it will happen,” Michael O’Hanlon, a military expert at the Brookings Institution, told The Wall Street Journal. “In principle, it’s fairly hard for (the Islamic State) to feel good about its position. It’s not as if it can hold these cities against the Iraqi army with American air power and other coalition air power.”

It’s hard to have great confidence in any predictions about the future in this seething region of the world. But for now, the recapture of Ramadi appears to show a remarkable turnaround for an Iraqi army that not long ago looked like one of the most unreliable militaries ever assembled.

That military, and Iraq at large, still face the enormous challenge of deep-seated sectarian political distrust. A main reason the Iraqi military fell apart is the political and religious divide between majority Shiites and minority Sunni populations. Many Iraqi Sunnis, who controlled the country under Saddam Hussein, saw the Shiite-dominated Iraqi army as a bigger threat than the Sunni-led Islamic State. It’s hard to liberate your own country when you aren’t seen as liberators.

For Iraq’s army to keep marching, the country needs to keep its footing. That’s on Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, who’s been slowly working to bridge the divide to the Sunnis, who were alienated by Abadi’s predecessor, Nouri al-Maliki.

Ramadi is a significant early test. Iraq counted on Shiite militias, which have deep ties to Iran, to reclaim Tikrit earlier this year. In Ramadi, some American-trained Sunni tribal fighters joined the Iraqi army to battle the Islamic State. If the Iraqis hold Ramadi, look for Sunni tribes and police to handle security. That’s life in deeply divided Iraq, but potentially a good sign. Iraq’s Sunnis must feel invested in their country’s future for it to succeed.

Meanwhile, there’s Syria, the heart of the Islamic State’s self-declared caliphate, riven by a civil war complicated by Russia’s efforts to prop up the brutal dictator Bashar Assad. Though the U.N. Security Council this month approved a resolution outlining a peace process for Syria, the U.S. and Russia remain at odds over the future of Assad.

For now, applaud the victory in Ramadi over the Islamic State and hope it holds. There is a long battle to go against a terrorist force that threatens the civilized world.

By Chicago Tribune