An Iraqi soldier holding a rocket-propelled grenade (RPG) in the army operation for Ramadi. AFP photo
The city of Ramadi could actually be free by the end of the year. The offensive for Ramadi started almost immediately after the city fell to the Islamic State (ISIS). It has been in progress since May but without any progress. At times it went so slowly and so many soldiers had amassed in the outskirts of the city without doing anything that even the Pentagon became frustrated and said it would withdraw support for the Iraqi forces because they appeared incompetent and incapable of such a task. Perhaps it was that public shaming of the Iraqi army by the US and its humiliating loss of the city that prompted them into this action this time.
But there is more to it than incompetence. The real reason for the slowness of the early operations and stalemate was that the army wasn't just soldiers. Many Shiite militiamen were also poised to attack the city and their sectarian banners fluttered in the desert wind on top of sand barriers and army vehicles. As a result, even though many of them were against ISIS, the people of Ramadi opposed any such operation that had Shiite militia contribution. A Sunni tribal chief told this newspaper a few months ago that the people of Ramadi had seen the death and destruction the Shiite militia had brought to Tikrit and Baiji and there was no way they could welcome such a force anywhere near Ramadi.
This possible militia vengeance and the Sunni resentment and fear is what made all previous offensives so slow and halting. So what lies behind the current operation's speed and apparent success? It is the fact that only the army and a 30,000 strong Sunni force called Hashid al-Ashairi (tribal mobilization force) is leading the fight. These tribal fighters were always there and ready to face ISIS, but they hesitated to do so because they didn't want to free their city and hand it back to Baghdad. They had been betrayed once before. Once they kicked the Al-Qaeda from all of Anbar, but soon afterwards the government under Nouri al-Maliki branded them as terrorists and threw them in jail. The army went in and crushed their demonstrations. People they had elected into government and parliament were prosecuted in Baghdad and their homes raided.
This time around the Sunnis seem to have played their cards well. They say they do not like ISIS, but they didn't stop them from taking over Ramadi and Fallujah. In fact they used ISIS as a bargaining chip with the central government and the Americans. They would remove ISIS on the condition that they would do it by themselves, no Shiite militia should participate, and after liberation they will be running their own affairs. Of course, the Iraqi army rejected all this, but the Americans are believed to have listened. Sources inside Ramadi say that the Americans even gave them weapons.
If they take back Ramadi the Sunnis will have done it twice. Once from the Al-Qaeda and once from ISIS. They'll also prove the belief that only the Sunnis themselves can bring an end to ISIS elsewhere in Iraq and Syria. But it is certainly too soon and unwise to jump to conclusions. The Sunni tribes are rigged with intrigues, rivalry and plots. They might be fighting side by side today, but at some point their differences will surface. Tribal chiefs and former leaders of the Sahwa (the awakening that drove out the al-Qaeda) are vying for power and influence. They do not have a united command and that is why the thousands of Sunni men who have taken up arms against ISIS have pledged some kind of allegiance to a new man.
This man is Suhaib al-Rawi, the governor of Anbar. Al-Rawi was elected governor only a few months before the ISIS takeover. It is said that the people of Anbar support him and he has a genuine following. He is from the Islamic Party of Iraq which is a legal political party and has members and offices across the country, especially in the Sunni regions. But in Anbar and Ramadi in particular, he is liked because he is new in his post and has so far remained neutral between the tribes and the government and rather focused on his job as governor.
Now the thousands of men who have decided to fight ISIS answer to him and see him as their commander. Part of the reason is that some of the Sahwa leaders and MPs from Anbar betrayed their people. They fought the Al-Qaeda back in the day to empower themselves and the MPs and ministers did so to win favours with the central government. One of them was Rafi al-Esawi, the former minister of finance. Al-Esawi was once a respected practicing doctor. He got into politics and went to Baghdad where he became the finance minister. But when he fell out with Maliki he went home and rallied people against the government in public protests. But according to a resident of Fallujah and some from Ramadi, al-Esawi staged the disturbances for his personal gain.
Now that they feel betrayed by some of their former leaders, the new governor seems to be the man to guide them through these difficult times. He appears to be getting on well with Baghdad and the locals alike. It is too soon to know what the future holds for Anbar and what the outcome of the war will be, but if the ordinary people have realised the civil administration is their best friend and have placed their bet on the governor, then it is a good sign and a step forward. Al-Rawi, who has put his family in the safety of the Kurdistan Region, is himself overseeing the fighting in Anbar. He has three more years as governor and if supported by Baghdad, the Americans and others, he might bring some peace and stability to this troubled province.