On December 27, 2015, after battling for several months, the Iraqi government declared a “smooth victory” over ISIS forces that had controlled the city of Ramadi since 2014. The fight to remove ISIS resistance was led by the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) with heavy support from US-led aerial bombardment. However, despite the declaration of victory by Iraqi forces, combat against ISIS pockets remaining in the city continued several weeks into the new year. When the dust finally settled after months of preparation, aerial bombing and entrenched battles, the prize that both sides were fighting over had been reduced to a smoldering pile of rubble. Is this the best way to defeat ISIS?
The Iraqi security forces whose effort, loyalty, and combat readiness have been impugned since ISIS stormed through western Iraq in 2014, were tasked with leading the charge and going after the ISIS fighters that had controlled Ramadi for 18 months. Ramadi is the capital of the mainly Sunni-Muslim Anbar province and had come under siege as ISIS forces broke out of Syria, seizing towns and cities along the group’s path. Located approximately 100 kilometers from Baghdad, the US-led anti-ISIS campaign and Iraqi government viewed Ramadi as a strategic prize that would serve to showcase the coordination of the ISF and international coalition.
The offensive to retake Ramadi was different from previous operations to liberate ISIS-held cities such as Tikrit and Beiji. Those operations were led and executed exclusively by the Popular Mobilization Forces and Shia-majority militias that are not under the command and control structure of the ISF but, rather, act as a secondary, and more powerful, force within Iraq. This mixture of militias and paramilitary forces, most of whose recruits come from Iraq’s Shia community, have grown into a controversial force because of accusations of war crimes, human rights violations, and extrajudicial killings during their operations. This has caused sectarian tensions to increase as these militias are seen as doing the bidding of Iran, which has contributed significant financial and operational support to these groups. The battle to retake Ramadi, however, was to be led by the ISF, which, at least nominally, is seen as a more representative and inclusive force.
The operation to remove ISIS fighters from Ramadi lasted six months, with stops and starts along the way. With most estimates of the number of ISIS members in Ramadi no exceeding several hundred, the ISF and US-led coalition had a substantial advantage in terms of size of forces. Yet, ISIS countered the numerical advantage by laying improvised explosive devices and mines throughout the city and surrounding areas and rigged many of the buildings in the city with booby-traps.
Months of combat and bombing took a heavy toll on Ramadi. The US-led air campaign had targeted the city and its adjacent areas with hundreds of airstrikes for several months prior to the real push by Iraqi ground forces. By the end, once the ISF had effective control over the city, the destruction was, as the United Nations eventually described it, “staggering.” A survey by local officials and UN experts declared that 80% of the city was destroyed and approximately 5,700 buildings in Ramadi were damaged, with 2,000 being completely destroyed. These included residents’ homes, apartments, and stores. Adding to the destruction, 64 bridges and the electricity grid had been severely damaged. Critical infrastructure, including water plants and hospitals, were also ruined. The destruction that laid waste to the city was the result of a scorched earth strategy by the ISF and US-led anti-ISIS coalition as well as ISIS insurgent tactics.
Now that Ramadi has been cleared of ISIS forces, the real work will begin. Ramadi must be defended from future ISIS counterattacks. In past liberation operations, such as in Beiji, ISIS was abel to re-infiltrate. Even recently, there have been reports of counterattacks in the areas outside of Ramadi, with one attack reportedly killing 47 Iraqi soldiers. Not only must Ramadi be held and defended but it must be rebuilt and its residents must be supported by the Iraqi government. This is the most crucial aspect of the campaign against ISIS; demonstrating to these communities that their government cares about them and their safety. The government led by Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has so far not shown a true commitment to the marginalized and displaced Sunni communities that have been most adversely affected by ISIS and militia violence.
The staggering level of destruction will require a significant level of investment by the Iraqi government and international donors to rebuild these struggling communities. Billions of dollars will have to be spent to reconstruct infrastructure to make the city livable again. For a country that is struggling to pay its own soldiers and government salaries, the cost of rebuilding these liberated communities may be more than Iraq can afford, even thought it is undoubtedly an essential expenditure. In order to have Iraq’s 3 million internally displaced persons return to their homes, the Iraqi government must re-examine its policies and commit to helping the people most vulnerable to the combat and violence in the conflict against ISIS.
The next city on the list to be liberated is Mosul. With a pre-war population of around 2 million, more than double Ramadi’s, the fight to remove ISIS forces will be long and costly. According to Iraqi spokesman Sabah al-Numani, the “smooth victory” in Ramadi should make Mosul residents happy. If prior examples, including Ramadi, are indicative of future outcomes, Mosul’s liberation through destruction will be staggering, to say the least.