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Iraqi army, militias prepare to retake Ramadi from IS group

Abandoned vehicles Iraqi military vehicles in Ramadi on May 17, 2015
Abandoned vehicles Iraqi military vehicles in Ramadi on May 17, 2015 © Twitter @SimNasr

The Iraqi army and thousands of Shiite militiamen on Tuesday prepared to fight Islamic State (IS) group insurgents who seized the Iraqi provincial capital Ramadi at the weekend in the biggest defeat for government forces in nearly a year.

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A column of 3,000 Shiite militia fighters had already assembled at a military base near the city Monday, preparing to take on IS group militants advancing in armoured vehicles from Ramadi, northwest of Baghdad, witnesses and a military officer said.

The Shiite militia, known as Hashid Shaabi or Popular Mobilisation, “reached the Habbaniya base and are now on standby,” said the head of the Anbar provincial council, Sabah Karhout.

A spokesman for Kataib Hezbollah, one of the leading Shiite paramilitary groups, said his organisation had units ready to join the Ramadi front from three directions.

"Tomorrow, God willing, these reinforcements will continue towards Anbar and Ramadi and the start of operations to cleanse the areas recently captured by Daesh will be announced," Jaafar al-Husseini told AFP, using an Arabic acronym for the IS group.

An eyewitness described a long line of armoured vehicles and trucks mounted with machine guns and rockets, flying the yellow flags of Kataib Hezbollah, heading towards the base about 30 km (20 miles) from Ramadi.

Washington, which is leading a campaign of air strikes to roll back IS group advances and struggling to rebuild Baghdad’s shattered army, conceded Monday that the loss of Ramadi was “indeed a setback” and reassured Baghdad that it will help Iraqi forces take it back.

“Our aircraft are in the air right now and searching for [IS group] targets. They will continue to do so until Ramadi is retaken,” said White House spokesman Eric Schultz.

Warplanes in the US-led coalition had conducted 19 strikes near Ramadi over the past 72 hours at the request of the Iraqi security forces, a coalition spokesman said.

25,000 flee city

About 500 people were killed in the fighting for Ramadi in recent days.

FRANCE 24 correspondent Saud Murrani reports from Baghdad

The IS group said it had seized tanks and killed “dozens of apostates”, its description for members of the Iraqi security forces. An eyewitness said bodies of policemen and soldiers lay in almost every street, with burnt-out military vehicles nearby.

The United Nations said 25,000 people fled the city after the attack, heading east to Baghdad. Many were believed to be running from the black-clad fighters of the militia for the second time. About 130,000 people had already fled the city in April.

The city’s fall marked the biggest defeat since the fall of Mosul in June last year and was a blow to the anti-IS group forces -- the US-led coalition and the Iraqi security forces, which have been propped up by Iranian-backed Shiite militias

It was a harsh return to reality for Washington, which at the weekend had mounted a special forces raid in Syria in which it said it killed an IS group leader in charge of the group’s black market oil and gas sales, and captured his wife.

US officials said there would be no strategy change, however, and Iraqi forces were ultimately responsible for defeating the IS group. “We will retake (Ramadi) in the same way that we are slowly but surely retaking other parts of Iraq, and that is with Iraqi ground forces and coalition air power,” Colonel Steve Warren, the Pentagon spokesman, said.

Fears over use of Shiite militias

The decision by Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, who is a Shiite, to send in Shiite militias to try to retake the predominantly Sunni city could add to sectarian hostility in one of the most violent parts of Iraq.

While the government in Baghdad has urged Sunni tribes in Anbar to accept help from the Shiite militia against Islamic State, many Sunnis view the Shiite militiamen as a worse threat than the jihadists. IS group portrays itself as a defender of Sunnis against sectarian attacks by the Iran-backed fighters.

But some Anbar tribes are so fearful of IS militants' harsh rule that they may be open to a role even for the hated Shiite militias. One tribal leader, Sheikh Abu Majid al-Zoyan, said he was suspicious of the militias, but “at this stage, we welcome any force that will come and liberate us from the chokehold” of IS group.

Ali Akbar Velayati, a senior Iranian official, said Tehran was ready to help confront IS militants, and he was certain the city would be “liberated”.

US officials said Washington was deeply divided about the involvement of the militias.

“There are people in our government who see any involvement of Iran as anathema. There are others who say the Shiite involvement will promote sectarian violence. There are others who say that’s not true,” one US official said on condition of anonymity.

A second official, also speaking on condition of anonymity, described Ramadi as “a powder keg” and said any use of militia has “got to be dealt with very, very delicately”.

“There’s the potential it can go very, very badly,” the official said.

(FRANCE 24 with REUTERS, AFP, AP)

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