Iraqi security forces attempting to retake control of the western city of Ramadi were routed in heavy fighting Sunday, the worst defeat for Iraq’s central government since Islamic State militants stormed across the country.
In a replay of last year’s military debacle, elite units abandoned their U.S.-provided equipment to Islamic State fighters and fled the area, leaving several hundred soldiers surrounded in the last government-held enclave in the city.
Multiple security sources, none of whom agreed to be identified, speaking from both within the besieged Anbar Provincial Operation Center as well as with the units fleeing the city, described the fight for control of the provincial capital of Iraq’s largest province as essentially over after reinforcements sent on Saturday to retake the city were crushed by Islamic State fighters.
“Only God can save us,” said one officer speaking by phone from inside the Anbar operations center, the last government-held position inside the city, where officers had been coordinating the operation. The officer said that several hundred policemen and soldiers were surrounded inside the command center, which was repeatedly struck by suicide bombers and heavy artillery fire as militants cut off their last routes of escape.
The units that had been attempting to retake Ramadi, which was attacked late Thursday evening and had fallen mostly into militant hands by Saturday, were in the process of fleeing the city and had abandoned dozens of U.S. supplied armored vehicles, as well as artillery, heavy machine guns and other military gear as they fled mostly on foot away from the fighting.
The elite Golden Brigade, Iraq’s premier special forces unit, which had withdrawn to the “Stadium” neighborhood south of the city on Friday to await reinforcements and prepare a counterattack had also abandoned its positions and was retreating from the area under heavy attack by Islamic State forces, according to two officers within the unit reached by phone Sunday.
“Ramadi has fallen to Daash,” one officer said. “There were many suicide bombers and many soldiers and officers are dead.”
One police officer confirmed that at least 30 U.S. supplied armored Humvees, which had been sent as reinforcements on Saturday, had been abandoned in the neighborhood of Malaab alone. Those vehicles were part of three regiments of Iraqi soldiers sent to the city on Saturday to confront the surprise offensive on one of the last government held population centers in Anbar, Iraq’s largest province.
The officer confirmed that at least 500 soldiers and police were fleeing from that area, mostly on foot, with the main highway linking Ramadi to the capital of Baghdad, about 60 miles away, completely controlled by the Islamic State.
Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al Abadi, responding to the unfolding crisis, went on state television Sunday evening to announce that he’d authorized the deployment of Iranian-backed Shiite militias to the area, though it remained unclear if any part of Ramadi will remain under government control by the time those troops can be deployed.
State television said that Anbar’s government council had voted Sunday to ask for the deployment, a move both the local Sunni tribes and the central government had resisted because of sectarian tensions between the mostly Shiite central government and the predominately Sunni residents of the area.
But with government forces in a full rout, all sides appeared to agree that the deployment of the militias was a necessary last resort. How effective Shiite militiamen deployed far from their home areas in an overtly hostile environment can be remained an open question but one civilian fleeing Ramadi said, “we no longer have a choice.”
The debacle unfolded despite at least seven air strikes by U.S. and coalition warplanes overnight Saturday to Sunday, with a statement from the U.S. military listing targets in and around Ramadi that had been destroyed by air strikes – including six units of Islamic State fighters and several command and control facilities used by the group – but apparently the strikes were unable to change the outcome of the battle.
Prothero is a McClatchy special correspondent. Email: email@example.com; Twitter: @mitchprothero