Baghdad, Iraq – While local and international attention is focused on Iraq’s northern Kurdish region, the Islamic State group has made important advances towards the capital of Anbar province, residents and local Iraqi officials said.
The group has taken control of most cities and towns in Anbar province, about 100km to the west of Baghdad, over the last eight months, but gaining control over the final parts of the city of Ramadi would put the entire Sunni province in its hands.
“Ramadi now is totally surrounded by the militants. The insurgents are nibbling the areas, one by one, like a scorpion. They are crawling towards the centre of Ramadi,” said a senior local official, who spoke to Al Jazeera on condition of anonymity.
The insurgents are nibbling the areas, one by one, like a scorpion. They are crawling towards the centre of Ramadi.
“Everyone in Baghdad is busy, either with the formation of the new government or the fighting in Mosul and Tikrit, and this has generated a state of inaction among the troops in Ramadi,” the official said.
Iraqi troops are scattered across military bases in the vast desert of Anbar province, and stationed at the centre of Ramadi and the nearby town of Haditha. But Iraqi security officials said most troops are insufficiently trained and under-equipped to engage in fighting against Islamic State fighters.
“Our regular troops which are deployed now in Anbar are not trained to be involved in guerilla fighting. They are able to [hold their positions on] the ground and defend themselves, no more,” said a security adviser to outgoing Iraqi Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
“Ramadi is a strategic city for us, but we do not have enough elite troops to achieve a victory there. So we withdrew a third of the troops from there and redeployed them around Baghdad,” the adviser said. The adviser told Al Jazeera that maintaining control over Ramadi is a “non-urgent” priority for the Iraqi government at this time.
The Islamic State group has swept through northern Iraq since it took control of Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, in June. Islamic State fighters routed Kurdish Peshmerga troops from towns that bordered the northern Kurdish autonomous region, and at least 500,000 people have been displaced.
But fighters affiliated with the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), the precursor to the Islamic State group, took control of Fallujah and Karma at the start of the year. In May, backed by several local tribes, the fighters seized most of the towns along the Euphrates River. The group has seized new areas in the Ramadi suburbs over the last few days, including al-Taamiem, al-Bujassim, and al-Buthiyab, according to local officials and residents.
The group’s rapid advance has alarmed Baghdad, and prompted US air strikes against the Islamic State group in Iraq. Ahmed Khalaf al-Dulaimi, the governor of Anbar province, recently told Reuters news agency that he asked for, and secured, US air support to battle Islamic State fighters.
US involvement in Anbar is a sensitive issue, however, given the bloody history of US military intervention in the province after its 2003 invasion. “Any US intervention in Anbar would be seen by [the] Sunni people… as direct military support for the federal Shia-led government in Baghdad against them,” said Hashim al-Habobi, an independent Iraqi political analyst.
“For Sunni people, Americans are not welcomed in the Sunni areas as they are seen as occupiers,” Habobi said. “[But if] Anbar falls into the hands of [Islamic State] militants … the next battle will be on the western border of Baghdad.”
While the Shia-led government in Baghdad views Sunni areas like Anbar province as incubators for the Islamic State group, the Anbar tribes’ loyalties are in fact divided: Several tribes have joined the Iraqi army in battles against Islamic State fighters since January, when the group first overran Fallujah and Ramadi, while others have backed the group.
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Sabah Karhout, the head of the Anbar provincial council, said that 25 Sunni tribes are ready to fight the Islamic State group in the province, but they want weapons, ammunition and money, and guarantees from Baghdad that they won’t face reprisals. “If [the government] does not equip the tribes and form a local armed force in [the Sunni areas controlled by Islamic State fighters], the battle will not end,” Karhout told Al Jazeera.
The Sunni tribes also want a slew of demands to be addressed by Baghdad, including securing amnesty for Sunni prisoners, and the cancellation of the Justice and Accountability law, better known as the de-Baathification law, which was intended to outlaw elements of Saddam Hussein’s Baathist regime.
Iraq’s newly-appointed Prime Minister Hayder al-Abadi said on Monday that he would support Sunni tribes willing to liberate their own towns. “I am not ready to send troops from the south to liberate Neneveh or Anbar or any other areas. I want the people of Nineveh to liberate their area … and Anbar’s people to liberate their areas, and they will be backed by the elite forces,” Abadi said in a press conference in Baghdad.
“Our army and our air forces will back those people, and I am ready to support all of them, even the armed groups which used to fight the state … We are ready to form local forces in Anbar, Nineveh and Salahadin, but they have to be under the control of the state,” Abadi said.