Two weeks after a critical victory at Tikrit, where a combination of U.S. airstrikes, government troops and Shiite Muslim militias overwhelmed an Islamic State force that had held the city for nearly a year, the Iraqi government faced a new challenge Wednesday, a sign of how much remains to be done to defeat the militants.
In a surprise assault, Islamic State fighters captured three villages outside Ramadi, the capital of Anbar province 100 miles south of Tikrit, and pushed to within 500 yards of a key government center in the northeastern section of the city, one of the few population centers in Anbar still under government control.
Government forces were responding with heavy bombardment from military aircraft, but the outcome of the battle was uncertain as night fell. Thousands of residents and troops were reported fleeing the city.
“The soldiers, the militias, the tribes, everyone with a gun who had said they would protect us from Daash has fled the city,” said one resident reached by phone, who asked not to be identified for security reasons. “There wasn’t even any fighting in this area and they just left. The city is a ghost town, and people are scared of Daash if they stay and scared they will be slaughtered by Daash on the road if they flee.” Daash is the Arabic acronym for the Islamic State.
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Photos from the city showed massive traffic tie-ups as hundreds of cars jammed roads.
The timing of the Islamic State’s offensive seemed intended to remind the government in Baghdad that the militants remain a potent force and ready to repel the government’s announced next move to liberate Anbar, a vast Sunni Muslim-dominated province that the Islamic State had controlled even before it stormed across northern and central Iraq last summer.
Residents and military commanders said the fighting had been heavy for the villages that fell to the Islamists – Sjariyah, Albu-Ghanim and Soufiya – and the Defense Ministry spokesman, Brig. Gen. Tahseen Ibrahim, acknowledged government troops’ defeat, telling The Associated Press that the militants had “gained a foothold in some areas.”
He said reinforcements had been dispatched to the province and that U.S.-led coalition airstrikes were supporting the Iraqi forces, although there was no immediate confirmation from the U.S. Central Command, whose aircraft generally strike at night, leaving the daytime airspace open to the less advanced Iraqi air force.
An Iraqi official in Ramadi, who spoke only on the condition of anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to talk to journalists, said militants had pushed to within 500 yards of the provincial command center but were then killed by U.S. airstrikes, part of what the official described as a trap the Iraqis and Americans had set for the Islamic State fighters.
A statement on the Central Command’s website referred to the combat in Ramadi as a clearing operation, suggesting that the Iraqi troops had held off the encroaching Islamic State fighters.
In the statement, the commander of U.S. troops in Iraq was quoted as saying the coalition would act quickly to support Iraqi government troops not only in Anbar but also in the north-central town of Baiji, where government forces holding the country’s largest oil refinery have been besieged by Islamic State fighters since last summer. The siege was recently tightened as militants who’d withdrawn from Tikrit refocused their efforts on storming critical oil refinery infrastructure.
“We are supporting Iraqi security forces throughout the country,” said the U.S. commander, Army Lt. Gen. James Terry. “Our support in Baiji, Ramadi and Karmah highlight our commitment towards enabling our Iraqi partners in their fight against Daash and in helping restore security throughout Iraq.”
Residents offered a less optimistic assessment of the fighting.
One, Omar al Dulaimi, told McClatchy by phone that the Islamic State attack had surprised residents and government-aligned tribal fighters. Dulaimi said government forces withdrew from their forward positions in Ramadi and Karmah, a strategic town outside the nearby city of Fallujah, leaving many pro-government Sunni tribesmen trapped. The tribesmen were running low on ammunition, he said.
The government “must break this siege or there will be hundreds of innocent people massacred by Daash,” Dulami said.
Wednesday’s fighting came as Prime Minister Haider al Abadi was in Washington to gather more financial and military support for the fight against the Islamic State. He met with President Barack Obama on Tuesday and had breakfast Wednesday with Defense Secretary Ashton Carter.
U.S. officials have been cautious about overstating Iraqi successes against the Islamic State.
“There are military engagements being conducted across the breadth and depth of this battlefield,” Army Col. Steve Warren, a Pentagon spokesman, said Wednesday. “It’s a war. There’s a war going on in Iraq.”
Warren described Ramadi as “contested” between the Islamic State and the government. He acknowledged that Islamic State fighters control Baiji and are pushing to take over the refinery and oil field there. “Iraqi security forces retain a majority of the Baiji oil field, but they are under pressure,” he said.
Warren’s description of the battles in Iraq contrasted with a rosier portrait he’d provided just Monday, when he displayed a color-coded map comparing areas of the country now under Islamic State control with such areas eight months ago.
The Islamic State had ceded 5,000 to 6,000 square miles of territory, Warren said, as its front lines had been pushed back to the east and to the south.
“ISIL has lost large areas where it was once dominant,” Warren said Monday, referring to the Islamic State by an acronym.
By Wednesday, his tone was more sober.
“We’re concerned with the situation in Iraq,” he said. “There’s a war going on. So there are going to be ebbs and flows. There are going to be setbacks.”
A McClatchy special correspondent in Anbar province, whose identity is being withheld for security reasons, contributed to this report.