The Iraqi army may have fled, as ISIS attacked the key city of Ramadi. But it’s the United States that’s now being blamed in Iraq—at least in some quarters—for losing the battle.
On the streets of Baghdad, Iraqis said afterward that had Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi sent Shiite militias to Ramadi sooner—and not acquiesced to U.S. demands to lean on Iraqi troops—the so-called Islamic State would not be in control there. Abadi gave the United States too much say over Iraq military operations, they argue.
Naim Alubdi, spokesman for one such Shiite militia, Asaaib al-Haqq, placed blame for the loss at the prime minister and his American allies, not the Iraqi army, which fled the fight reportedly after enduring a series of car bomb attacks.
Prime Minister “Abadi was under the pressure from America to not let Asaaib intervene. And now when it’s too late, he asks us to come and rescue,” Alubdi told The Daily Beast.
If the notion takes hold that Iraq’s prime minister is nothing but an American pet, the damage to the already-teetering campaign against ISIS could be severe. The American war plan relies on a strong, central government. It’s hard to imagine that government projecting much strength if it’s seen as Washington’s plaything.
In parliament, some members, particularly those from rival Shiite blocs, suggested Abadi did not prepare forces in Ramadi adequately, spreading the Army too thin throughout the country.
While the U.S. made its preference for government forces clear, no evidence has emerged that the Pentagon told Abadi not to send in militia forces. In Iraq, that didn’t seem to matter. The narrative supported ongoing perceptions that the U.S. wants to see Iraq fall so that Washington can send in its own troops to intervene.
In the last year, many Iraqis have said they believe that the Islamic State is a U.S. construct, a thinly veiled effort to justify intervening again in their country. Suggestions from U.S. legislators on Capitol Hill that the state should be divided along sectarian lines has further reinforced fears that the United States is rooting against a unified Iraq.
Abadi himself appeared to address concerns that he was too aligned with the United States during a trip to Moscow, scheduled before Ramadi’s fall over the weekend. The visit itself was already seen by some as a poke at Washington. And according to one Reuters report, Abadi said he disregarded calls from what he described as “certain forces” cancel the trip, which many interpreted to be the United States.
Strongly backed by the United States, Abadi last year ascended to power, in large part, because he was seen as a weak leader that could appeal to the various Shiite factions without alienating Sunnis and Kurds. That universal embrace was supposed to promise a more inclusive government than his predecessor Nouri al Maliki. Instead, almost immediately Abadi confronted offensives launched the Islamic State around the country and had to craft a means to defend the state.
With a weak Iraqi Army, Abadi leaned on the U.S.-led coalition air campaign. But other Shiite leaders, including those aligned with Maliki, depended more heavily on Iranian trained and backed militias.
When Iraqi forces—backed by Shiite militias and coalition air strikes—prevailed two months ago in the central city of Tikrit, Abadi appeared to have successfully struck a balance between the resources from rival nations. But Ramadi’s collapse brought his military strategy into question and emboldened the militias who moved immediately toward the Sunni dominated city and capital of Iraq’s Anbar province.
The Obama administration, meanwhile, rushed to Abadi’s defense. During a briefing with reporters Wednesday, a senior State Department official, who spoke on the condition of an anonymity as a condition for the briefing, said Abadi had emerged a strong leader, seeking to rebuild his army.
“Prime Minister Abadi is—has had a number of crises now in his first eight or nine months in office—this is another one—and we think he’s responded quite well,” the senior official told reporters. “And we fully support the program that they put together which has the support of the Sunnis, most specifically in Anbar, but the Sunnis and the Kurds in the government, which is very important.
President Obama, in an interview with The Atlantic, was similarly sunny. “I don’t think we’re losing,” he told the magazine.
Iraqis are not as optimistic. In local media, Abadi is described as an enfeebled leader, which creates political pressure on him to prove his mettle and launch a military campaign to try to reclaim the city. U.S. defense officials told The Daily Beast that Iraqi officials proposed moving back onto the city within hours of its fall over the weekend. The U.S. military urged the Iraqi army, whose units fled Ramadi to two staging areas a few miles east of the city, urged the military to ensure it has a strong battle plan.
“We’re just giving good military advice,” one U.S. defense official explained to The Daily Beast. “We are not holding them back.”
U.S. defense officials estimate the soonest the Iraqi military to plan and stage an attempted retake of the city would be a week but as long as two weeks.
In the meantime, ISIS has already built trenches around the city, planted booby traps and firing harassing fire. And reports emerged Thursday that the terror was moving into cities east of Ramadi, inching closer to the capital less than 80 miles away.
Regardless, the battle plan for Ramadi is increasingly shaped not by ISIS defenses but the fragility of the Abadi premiership.
“The US should be more sensitive to the political pressure if we want [Abadi] to” remain in office, said Douglas A. Ollivant, a retired Army colonel who served in Iraq. He now is a managing partner of Mantid International. Otherwise, “it makes it difficult for an Iraqi politician to be aligned the Untied States.”
—with additional reporting by Mais al-Baya’a