With the help of American engineering know-how and air power, Iraqi army forces have driven close to the center of Ramadi, putting pressure on Islamic State forces who are battling ferociously to hold the city.
No word on casualties, but Col. Steve Warren, a spokesman for Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve in Baghdad, was quoted as saying the fighting has been “fairly dynamic.” Baghdad says that “hundreds” of ISIS fighters have been killed — an unlikely boast given that there may be fewer than 300 Islamic State forces left in the city.
The government also claims that Ramadi will fall in less than 72 hours. But American commanders are a lot less optimistic.
Approximately 10,000 Iraqi army troops and an unknown number of U.S.-trained counterterrorism soldiers crossed the Thar Thar Canal, a branch of the Euphrates River, using an “improvised ribbon bridge” supplied by an American engineer unit.
The Iraqi forces had trained for the maneuver with the engineers of the 814th Multi-Role Bridging Company based at Fort Polk, Louisiana, Warren said. “We’re encouraged by this tactical development,” he said. To back up the bridge assault, U.S. warplanes conducted 33 airstrikes within the last 24 hours, he said.
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.
Brig. Gen. Yahya Rasoul Abdullah, a spokesman for the Iraqi military, said, “We are very optimistic that we will achieve victory in the next few days, because we are already in the center,” The Washington Post reported.
Warren was more cautious.
“I think the fall of Ramadi is inevitable,” he said in a telephone briefing to Pentagon reporters. ‘The end is coming,” he said, but “it’s going to be a tough fight.”
“The fight is fairly dynamic in spots,” Warren added, as Iraqi forces proceed slowly past the tightly-packed buildings in the city’s center to avoid mines and improvised explosive devices.
Warren was leery of providing estimates, but said about 250-300 fighters affiliated with the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, were believed to be in the city, with another several hundred in positions on the outskirts.
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.
What the Shia militia fighters lack in training and discipline they make up for with a near fanatical desire to get at the enemy. In the liberation of Tikrit, the militias committed several atrocities against Sunnis, which is why the Iraqi government wants to leave them out of this fight to retake Ramadi.
But the government will probably need those militias to retake the much larger city of Mosul. That, ultimately, is the goal. Fighting in an urban environment is a challenge that the Iraqi army has yet to prove they are up to handling. No doubt U.S. advisors will be watching what happens in Ramadi with great interest.