Iraqi forces backed by Iranian-trained militias and U.S. air strikes have made significant progress in isolating Ramadi, the capital of Anbar province that the Islamic State overran in May, according to Iraqi officials, local residents and Western military advisers.
But there’s no certainty that that means the city will soon be retaken. Iraqi officials repeatedly have expressed optimism about progress against the Islamic State, only to find themselves unable to defeat the extremists, especially in areas such as Ramadi where Sunni Muslims are in the majority and have little trust in the Shiite-led government in Baghdad.
“We have now cut the last supply line of Daash connecting Ramadi to Syria,” said an Iraqi officer who works in the Anbar command center but lacks authorization to brief journalists publicly. “Iraqi forces can now strangle the terrorists inside the city and we should see victory in a few days.”
Daash is an Arabic term for the Islamic State, which also is known as ISIS and ISIL.
A Western military adviser to Iraq’s autonomous Kurdish Regional Government who’s been briefed on the situation by his country’s trainers working to rebuild the Iraqi military agreed that the progress to isolate Ramadi was a legitimate achievement. But he cautioned that much harder work is to come as Iraqi military units face fighting in a city of nearly 1 million people that remains populated. Kurdish forces are not participating in the operation.
“Iraqi forces have struggled in urban operations, and Ramadi will be tough once they enter the city itself,” he said, asking that his name and his nationality be withheld so as not to be seen as critical of the troops he helps mentor.
He said the Iraqi government’s success in recapturing Tikrit in the spring was unlikely to prove precedent for the push to take Ramadi.
“They were only able to take control of an empty and much smaller Tikrit due to heavy coalition air support, which is far less feasible because Daash didn’t allow much of Ramadi to flee when they took control,” he said, referring to Iraqi government forces. “House to house fighting is hard for well trained armies, and Iraq does not have anything resembling that.”
The operation to encircle Ramadi began in earnest on Wednesday after months of speculation. According to data from U.S. Central Command, at least seven air strikes a day have targeted the area, primarily focusing on the outskirts of the city in an effort to deny Islamic State fighters the ability to maneuver.
On Thursday, Iraqi officials said that a series of air strikes had destroyed five large Islamic State tactical units, allowing the seizure of a bridge to the west of the city that was the last link to other Islamic State-held areas.
U.S. and Iraqi officials have been divided on whether retaking Ramadi should have the priority. U.S. officials have publicly pushed for the Iraqi army to focus on the other major city in Anbar, Fallujah, because it has been mostly abandoned and sits astride the highway linking Ramadi to Baghdad. But Iraqi officials have openly said that as a point of pride they want to retake the provincial capital first, which would isolate Fallujah and make it much easier to retake.
Iraqi Prime Minister Hadi al Abadi has been openly critical of the U.S. reluctance to conduct heavy air strikes in populated areas and has repeatedly implied that the disagreement over whether to focus on Ramadi or Fallujah has delayed the operation.
But the Iraqi officer at the Anbar operations center admitted the situation was complicated. Recapturing Ramadi will be no easy task, given the Islamic State’s penchant for sowing the areas it holds with thousands of improvised explosive devices and other defenses, he said.
“They have turned Ramadi into a giant bomb since May,” he said of the Islamic State. “The number of IEDs, suicide bombers and mines makes progress very slow for our soldiers. Some days they can only move 50 meters because they have to destroy 10 bombs set by Daash in that space.”
Col. Steve Warren, spokesman for the coalition in Baghdad, praised the encirclement of Ramadi in a statement Saturday. He said the United States would continue to support the operation in any manner possible.
Local residents reached by phone Sunday described heavy fighting in the town Bathath Fallujah and said that Iraqi troops appeared to also be moving to encircle Fallujah. The cutoff of both Fallujah and Ramadi would place the civilians that remain in both cities in a precarious position.
“No food, no medicine is allowed into Ramadi or Fallujah,” said a Fallujah resident, Abu Mumtaz al Dulami, who fled to Baghdad last year but remains in contact with family inside both cities. “People are very scared and this could turn into a big crisis if the siege continues.”
Prothero is a McClatchy special correspondent. @mitchprothero