Two weeks after a critical victory at Tikrit, where a combination of U.S. airstrikes, government troops and Shiite Muslim militias overwhelmed an Islamic State force that had held the city for nearly a year, the Iraqi government faced a new challenge Wednesday, a sign of how much remains to be done to defeat the militants.
In a surprise assault, Islamic State fighters captured three villages outside Ramadi, the capital of Anbar province 100 miles south of Tikrit, and pushed to within 500 yards of a key government center in the northeastern section of the city, one of the few population centers in Anbar still under government control.
Government forces were responding with heavy bombardment from military aircraft, but the outcome of the battle was uncertain as night fell. Thousands of residents and troops were reported fleeing the city.
“The soldiers, the militias, the tribes, everyone with a gun who had said they would protect us from Daash has fled the city,” said one resident reached by phone, who asked not to be identified for security reasons. “There wasn’t even any fighting in this area and they just left. The city is a ghost town, and people are scared of Daash if they stay and scared they will be slaughtered by Daash on the road if they flee.” Daash is the Arabic acronym for the Islamic State group.
Photos from the city showed massive traffic tie-ups as hundreds of cars jammed roads.
The timing of the Islamic State’s offensive seemed intended to remind the government in Baghdad that the militants remain a potent force and ready to repel the government’s announced next move to liberate Anbar, a vast Sunni Muslim-dominated province that the Islamic State had controlled even before it stormed across northern and central Iraq last summer.
Residents and military commanders said the fighting had been heavy for the villages that fell to the Islamists – Sjariyah, Albu-Ghanim and Soufiya – and the Defense Ministry spokesman, Brig. Gen. Tahseen Ibrahim, acknowledged government troops’ defeat, telling The Associated Press that the militants had “gained a foothold in some areas.”
He said reinforcements had been dispatched to the province and that U.S.-led coalition airstrikes were supporting the Iraqi forces, although there was no immediate confirmation from the U.S. Central Command, whose aircraft generally strike at night, leaving the daytime airspace open to the less advanced Iraqi air force.
An Iraqi official in Ramadi, who spoke only on the condition of anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to talk to journalists, said militants had pushed to within 500 yards of the provincial command center but were then killed by U.S. airstrikes, part of what the official described as a trap the Iraqis and Americans had set for the Islamic State fighters.
A statement on the Central Command’s website referred to the combat in Ramadi as a clearing operation, suggesting that the Iraqi troops had held off the encroaching Islamic State fighters.