Kurdish commanders say Islamic State extremists were able to capture Ramadi a week ago because elite U.S.-trained Iraqi soldiers abandoned their posts 48 hours before the jihadis launched their final assault on the western Iraqi city. Their retreat left Iraqi units remaining in Ramadi and defending the strategic city dangerously exposed.
The flight of Iraqi Special Forces in scenes reminiscent of the mass retreat of regular Iraqi soldiers last year from Mosul made it easier for Islamic State to take over Ramadi on May 17, a top frontline Kurdish commander told Rudaw news site, a media outlet close to the leaders of the Kurdistan Regional Government.
According to the commander, an officer in the Iraqi army and not attached to the Kurdish Peshmerga forces, the elite troops pulled out two days before Islamic State fighters launched a series of devastating suicide car bomb attacks to punch their way into the city, the capital of Iraq’s western Anbar province.
"Two days prior to the ISIL attack, we had accurate information that the Special Operations had packed up and abandoned their base…I personally relayed the information through the chain of command and contacted Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi,” he said.
He added, “Later that day more than 200 army vehicles abandoned their posts, and their withdrawal led to the defeat of all other forces that were in Anbar to fight… It was an extraordinary withdrawal and there was no reason for it.”
The Iraqi Special Forces were formed in 2005 and the first units were trained in Jordan by U.S. commanders. A branch of the Iraqi army, the Special Forces Command, which is made up of two brigades, reports directly to Iraqi Prime Minister Abadi.
"Iraqi forces just showed no will to fight"
On Sunday, U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter raised doubts about the reliability of Iraqi forces in the fightback against Islamic State, or ISIL. He told CNN, “What apparently happened is the Iraqi forces just showed no will to fight. They were not outnumbered. In fact, they vastly outnumbered the opposing force. That says to me, and I think to most of us, that we have an issue with the will of the Iraqis to fight ISIL and defend themselves.”
But the Kurdish officer, as well as other Iraqi commanders VOA has contacted, say the U.S.-led coalition against Islamic State should shoulder some of the blame for the overrunning of Ramadi. They argue the coalition failed to mount concerted airstrikes in the days prior to the fall of the city on extremist convoys transporting IS fighters to Ramadi.
The head of the Iraqi parliament's defense and security committee, Hakim al-Zamili, told the Associated Press shortly after Carter's comments aired that the United States is trying to shift blame to Iraq for Washington's failure to provide "good equipment, weapons and aerial support" to Iraqi forces.
In the five days prior to the final assault on the city, large armed convoys carrying IS reinforcements were arriving in Iraq from Raqqa, the de facto Syrian capital of the Islamic State. The convoys crossed into Iraq at the border town of Al-Qa’im, but they did not come under a sustained air assault from either coalition or Iraqi warplanes.
VOA has reviewed the air sortie logs issued by the Pentagon for the days leading up to IS’s final assault on Ramadi. There were no coalition airstrikes reported on May 12 or May 13 near Ramadi or Al Qa’im by U.S. defense officials. On May 14, the Pentagon reported one airstrike near Al Qa’im that destroyed an IS excavator, but on May 15 again there were no coalition airstrikes.
On May 16 there was a surge of coalition airstrikes near Ramadi, with four airstrikes targeting small tactical units and vehicles. And on the day the city fell, there was a dramatic increase in coalition sorties near Ramadi, with seven airstrikes mounted.
More trouble for Iraq's government
The capture of Ramadi has set up the circumstances for more trouble for the Iraqi government in Iraq’s western Anbar province, analysts say. Iraq’s prime minister has now deployed volunteer Shi'ite militias, known as the Popular Mobilization Forces, to try to wrest control of the city back, but that is likely to roil more Sunnis in Anbar, a province they dominate, and undermine efforts to persuade local tribes aligned with IS to defect.
Professor Gareth Stansfield, an analyst at RUSI, a British defense think tank, says the Shi'ite militia deployment to Ramadi risks sparking all-out sectarian war between Iraqi Sunnis and Shi'ites, a development IS has sought to engineer. “For ISIL this is exactly what they want to see happen. They don't want to see an Iraqi military force deployed to ostensibly protect all Iraqis. They want to see Shi'ite militia forces deployed," says Stansfield.
IS has portrayed its capture of Ramadi as a “liberation” from Iraq’s Shi'ite-dominated government.
On Saturday, Shi'ite militia volunteers massed close to Ramadi in the town of Habbaniya, and skirmishes started Sunday on the outskirts Ramadi. Following the recapture of Tikrit earlier this year, Shi'ite militias were accused of human rights abuses against local Sunnis.
Tarik al-Abdullah, an Anbar tribal leader, says the Iraqi government should avoid using Shi'ite militiamen and instead arm local Sunni volunteers to fight IS. The Iraqi government has been loath to do that, fearing Anbar tribesmen may defect to IS, taking the weapons supplied with them. Shi'ite leaders also are opposed to arming western Iraq’s Sunni Muslims.
Ramadi, which features as a backdrop for the Oscar-nominated movie American Sniper, is just an hour’s drive from Baghdad and could be used to launch an attack on the Iraqi capital.