Will a Stunning Defeat in Iraq Prompt Further US Involvement?
While Islamic State militants are thwarted in northern Iraq by US airstrikes and Shiite militiamen, the extremists achieved a great victory last weekend in the Sunni province of Anbar with the capture of Ramadi, a city only 70 miles from Baghdad.
Ramadiâ€™s population of 850,000 has been declining in recent months as continued violence drives civilians away. April saw an exodus of nearly 114,000.
Prime Minster Haider al-Abadi and his Shiite government were responsible for arming the Sunni tribesmen and members of the Iraqi military in charge of defending the city. It seems they hadnâ€™t been doing a very good job.
Despite help in the form of intensified airstrikes by US pilots, Ramadi couldnâ€™t push back the vicious IS assault. The battle became a rout and ended Sunday as the Iraqi military fled the city along with thousands of residents. All weapons left behind are now in IS hands.
The victors engaged in a celebratory killing spree on Monday, a practice common after significant IS victories. The death toll climbed to 500 as Sunni homes and businesses were torched and bodies were dumped into the Euphrates River.
With the capture of Ramadi, IS now controls about 60% of the Anbar province. To prepare for a counterattack, the Prime Minster ordered hundreds of Shiite militiamen to a base near the captured city.
President Obama worries that a Shiite fighting force isnâ€™t what the Sunni province wants, even if it means taking back the city. The Shiites have been accused of killing Sunnis during skirmishes against the IS multiple times, but the need for help is so dire that â€œWe welcome any group, including Shiite militias, to come and help us,â€ says Naeem al-Gauoud, a Sunni tribal leader who fought in vain to defend the city of Ramadi.
Locals, on the other hand, see no difference between IS attacks and the brutal Shiite forces. â€œFor us, the militias and the IS militants are two faces of the same coin,â€ says a shopkeeper in Ramadi.
The White House has reassured Iraq that the US military will help retake the captured city, but this devastating defeat leaves the Obama administration wondering if air support is really enough.
Iraqi forces, however, seem confident: â€œ[We will] eliminate this barbaric enemy,â€ says a Shiite militiaman. â€œGod willing, we will achieve this triumph and we will not accept anything less than that.â€