Monday 22 January 2018

Shia and Sunni fighters unite in effort to drive Isil out of Ramadi

Thousands of militiamen and tribal soldiers gather outside key Iraqi city that fell to jihadists

An Iraqi Shiite fighter walks with his weapon past internally displaced Sunni people fleeing the violence in the city of Ramadi, on the outskirts of Baghdad.
An Iraqi Shiite fighter walks with his weapon past internally displaced Sunni people fleeing the violence in the city of Ramadi, on the outskirts of Baghdad.

Richard Spencer in Cairo

Thousands of Shia militiamen and Sunni tribal fighters were gathering outside the western Iraqi city of Ramadi, promising to reverse the Iraqi army's humiliating defeat by Isil jihadists.

Militias from the so-called Popular Mobilisation Committees, a grouping of largely Shia, pro-Iran groups, were called up by the prime minister, Haider al-Abadi, as the army fled.

They had been held back previously because of fears of sectarian clashes with residents and tribes in the city, capital of the Sunni heartland province of Anbar.

According to local media, 3,000 fighters had gathered by Monday morning at the former British RAF base of Habbaniya, now an Iraqi army hold-out in the province, most of which is now under the control of Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isil).

But thousands of Sunni tribesman were also gathering west of the city. Sunni tribes have been divided in their loyalty between the government and their co-religionists in Isil.

The arrival of a large number of Sunni fighters will make it easier for the US to justify continuing air support for the pro-government forces even as they are joined by pro-Iran militias.

"As of today, we are supporting the Iraqi security forces and the government of Iraq with precision airstrikes and advice to the Iraqi forces," a US State Department spokesman said last night.

"It is important to re-take Ramadi and we are confident that Ramadi will be retaken." Officials of both the State Department and the Pentagon said the deployment of the Shia militias was acceptable "so long as they are under the command of the army".

"If you look at the popular mobilisation forces, the decision by the Anbari leadership and tribes to support their coming into Anbar to help re-take Ramadi is an important step," the spokesman added.

The forthcoming battle to retake Ramadi will once again put Iran and America on the same side, despite their historic mutual hostility.

The fall of the city at the weekend, despite months of resistance, was further evidence that pushing back Isil requires both countries as well as the Iraqi army to co-operate.

Last month, Mr al-Abadi visited the Habbaniya military base in Iraq's Sunni heartland hoping to fire up pro-government fighters seen as critical in the battle against Isil.

But the group's seizure of Ramadi in Anbar has forced the man once seen as the best hope for healing sectarian divisions to try perhaps the most perilous approach - deploying Shia militias long seen as a destabilising force.

Now a column of 3,000 Shia militia fighters has arrived at Habbaniya near Ramadi as Baghdad moved to retake the Western city that had fallen in the biggest defeat for the government since mid-2014.

That raised the prospect of an escalation of sectarian bloodletting in Iraq, still struggling to find a formula for stability four years after the last US troops withdrew.

Shia militias say they are focused on ridding Iraq of Isil, the ultra-hardline group that has also seized large parts of neighbouring Syria.

Many Sunnis say the militias kidnap and kill members of their sect at will because the government is unwilling or too weak to rein them in, allegations they deny.

Mr al-Abadi ran out of choices as Isil - which had already seized large parts of northern and western Iraq - took over Ramadi.

The Iraqi armed forces have yet to prove they can take on Isil without the help of Shia militias backed by Iran. When al-Abadi replaced polarising figure Nuri al-Maliki as prime minister in 2014, he seemed optimistic that sectarian divisions tearing the country apart could heal.

His government repeatedly pledged to equip and train Anbar's Sunni tribes with a view to replicating the "Awakening" model applied during the surge of 2006-07, when US Marines turned the tide against al-Qa'ida.

Meanwhile, the Pentagon confirmed that allied coalition aircraft hit Ramadi at the weekend, but were unable to turn the tide of the Isil advance.

Saudi-led air raids hit the Yemen capital Sanaa on Monday night, targeting forces loyal to former President Ali Abdullah Saleh in the east and south of the city, residents said yesterday.

The strikes were the first to hit the capital after a five-day ceasefire ended late on Sunday, although operations resumed earlier in northern Saada province and in the city of Aden.

Saudi Arabia and its Sunni allies have been conducting an offensive against Iranian-allied Houthis and units loyal to Saleh for more than seven weeks, part of a campaign to restore exiled President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi to power.

The truce ended despite appeals by the United Nations and aid groups for extra time to allow badly needed humanitarian supplies into the country of 25 million people, one of the poorest in the Middle East. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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