About 10,000 Iraqi troops supported by devastating bombing attacks by U.S. planes are on the verge of retaking the city of Ramadi, capital of Anbar Province.
Islamic State isn’t making it easy for them.
Recapturing Ramadi, which fell to the militants in May, would be one of the most significant victories for Iraq’s armed forces since Islamic State swept across a third of the country in 2014.
The soldiers are within 300 meters (330 yards) of the provincial government compound, the target of the attack they launched on Tuesday, Sabah al-Numani, a spokesman for the counter-terrorism force that is leading the fight on the government side, said.
“We expect to reach the compound in the next 24 hours,” he told Reuters. `”Booby trapped houses and roadside bombs are all over the streets, they have to be cleared; air surveillance is helping detect car bombs and suicide bombers before they get to us.”
Ramadi is the capital of the mainly Sunni Muslim Anbar province in the fertile Euphrates River valley, just two hours drive west of Baghdad.
If the offensive in Ramadi succeeds, it will be the second main city to be retaken by the Iraqi government after Tikrit, in April. Officials said it would be handed over to the local police and to a Sunni tribal force once secured.
Ramadi was Islamic State’s biggest prize of 2015, abandoned by government forces in May in a major setback for Baghdad and for the Iraqi troops trained by the United States since the overthrow of Saddam Hussein in 2003.
The Iraqi government forces are backed by air support from an international coalition led by the United States.
Shi’ite militias backed by Iran, which have played a major role in other offensive against Islamic State, have been kept away by the Iraqi government from the battlefield in Ramadi to avoid sectarian tensions.
After Ramadi, the army plans to move to retake the northern city of Mosul, the biggest population center under Islamic State control in Iraq and Syria.
Dislodging the militants from Mosul, which had a pre-war population close to 2 million, would effectively abolish their state structure in Iraq and deprive them of a major source of funding, which comes partly from oil and partly from fees and taxes on residents.
Is the myth of ISIS “invincibility” falling away? Observers say there were never more than 300 fighters in the city, so as a military victory, there wouldn’t be much to crow about. But psychologically, kicking ISIS out of Ramadi would be a big shot in the arm to the Iraqi army. In May, when Ramadi fell, thousands of Iraqi troops ran away in terror leaving behind their guns and heavy weapons. Now they’re ready to at least partially redeem themselves.
Islamic State depends a lot on striking terror in the hearts of its opponents for its battlefield success. Once the myth is gone, they become just a bunch of terrorists — a fearful thing to be sure, but not unbeatable. If the Iraqi army can complete its task of taking Ramadi, a blow will be struck against Islamic State in Iraq and the government will garner some much needed credibility.