Ramadi victory marks tough road ahead in fight against Islamic State group
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Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi visited the city of Ramadi on Tuesday, following its liberation from the Islamic State (IS) armed group on Monday. Abadi has vowed to drive the jihadists out of the country by the end of 2016 but analysts believe the Iraqi government has a lot of work ahead.
Abadi’s visit to the capital of Anbar province came a day after elite counter-terrorist forces raised the Iraqi flag in the city centre.
The situation remains unstable, though, with security forces reportedly clearing away bombs and booby traps left by IS fighters and humanitarian groups unable to enter the city.
“So far we don’t have access to Ramadi,” said Maria Cecilia Goin from the Baghdad offices of the International Committee of the Red Cross. “Our colleagues proceed only when they have security clearance. So we don’t have the picture and we cannot assess the needs of the population.”
“The real challenge now will be how to enable residents to return to the city while preventing Islamic State from reinfiltrating sleeper cells who could launch attacks either against security forces or against local tribes they consider to be pro-government,” said Nathaniel Rabkin, managing editor of risk assessment newsletter Inside Iraqi Politics.
“If the government is unable to meet that challenge, the battle will not be remembered as a victory.”
Still, Abadi has not downplayed the victory in any way, promising on Monday that pro-government forces will push the Islamic State group out of the country by the end of 2016.
His words suggests the government considers it has the momentum to liberate the city of Mosul, which the jihadist group has held since June 2014 and which analysts say marks a much more difficult objective than Ramadi, both in military and political terms.
“It would have to involve coordination between Kurdish forces which are north and east of Mosul with Iraqi forces coming up from the south,” Rabkin explains.
The most difficult political objective would be reconciling “the role local Sunni tribal militias who oppose the IS with the role of Shia militia forces, who are also very eager to participate in the operation to liberate Mosul from the IS but have a very different vision for how the city and Iraq as a whole will be governed after that operation is completed”, he adds.
Others say Abadi’s efforts to include various tribes and groups in the country's political and military processes are evident in the victory in Ramadi.
“To fulfil his promise of defeating IS, he will have to continue these policies of improving relations, especially with the Sunni community of Iraq,” says Riad Kahwaji, founder of the Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis in Dubai.
“If the Sunni tribes are integrated within the establishment and the international alliance keeps up its air assaults, it is possible we will see the Iraqi forces retake control of Mosul from IS.”
The loss of Ramadi is the third defeat the IS has suffered in Iraq since October, when pro-government forces reclaimed the city of Baiji, which has been cited as a potential base for a future assault on Mosul.
“[Ramadi] is not only a military defeat but also a strong blow to the morale of a group that for the past two years has been gaining ground and has proclaimed itself as a state,” Kahwaji says. “Now it’s beginning to lose ground, which will effect morale and the support it’s been getting.”