Why the Iraqi army’s win against IS group in Ramadi is ‘critical’

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi took a triumphant tour of the western city of Ramadi Tuesday, just a day after government troops routed Islamic State (IS) militants from the area and recaptured a key government complex.

Ramadi has witnessed some of the heaviest fighting of the eight-year US intervention in Iraq but when Iraqi forces backed by US-led airstrikes drove IS group militants out of the city centre, raising the Iraqi flag over the government complex, it was a important and symbolic moment.

David Rigoulet-Roze, a Middle East expert at the Institute of French Strategic Analysis (IFAS), told FRANCE 24 that while Ramadi may not yet signal a turnaround in the conflict in Iraq, it’s nonetheless a highly emblematic victory.

Why was the city of Ramadi important to the Islamic State group?
David Rigoulet-Roze: Ramadi is the capital of Anbar province situated 112 km west of the country’s capital, Baghdad. It's the third largest provincial capital held by the IS group after Raqqa in Syria and Mosul. When the IS group captured the city in June 2015 it was an important win for them. There were perhaps between 300 and 400 jihadists holding Ramadi before the Iraqi army reclaimed the city, although it’s still difficult to determine exactly how many IS group fighters were on the ground as many have since fled.

Can we confidently call this a decisive military victory for Iraq?
David Rigoulet-Roze: For the first time, Iraqis have reclaimed a city which is a Sunni city, which makes this win for the army critical. But above all, the Iraqi army has gone some way toward vindicating its image after its defeat in northern Iraq in 2014 and Ramadi in June 2015, which significantly damaged the army’s image and morale. And notwithstanding the assistance of coalition air strikes and the fact the Americans asked the government of Baghdad to ensure Shiite militias did not take part in the retaking of Ramadi (as it is Sunni), the army managed to steadily gain ground. Even if it doesn’t change the situation, it’s an important step in re-establishing Iraq’s sovereignty.

How far can we attribute the Iraqi army’s success in Ramadi to the influence of coalition training?
David Rigoulet-Roze: This victory is the first sign that the Iraqi army is beginning to reap the rewards of training initiated by various coalition forces, mostly American. Operationally, cooperation has begun to appear on the ground between the Iraqi army, the anti-terrorist forces and Sunni tribes fighting the IS jihadists. As a whole, Iraqi forces have demonstrated improved military capabilities. US Army Colonel Steve Warren, a spokesman for the US-led coalition in Baghdad, noted significant progress in stemming the threat of suicide bombers. The army, for instance, is now better able to anticipate attacks, such as car bombs. It’s a far more optimistic situation than it was six months ago.

So where to from here? Will Iraqi forces be able to exploit their military success to liberate other areas lost to the IS group in 2015?
David Rigoulet-Roze: They would need to follow up their success by retaking the cities of Raqqa and Mosul, but this isn’t yet on the agenda. It would require a very different military strategy to take back a city like Mosul, which is the economic heart of the IS group and where they’ve established a strong base. What’s important right now is that the IS group’s momentum in Iraq is clearly broken. As for the still occupied territories, their future depends on many factors including the ability, in the long-term, of the Iraqi government to successfully re-integrate the Sunni population once they’re liberated from IS jihadists.

(This is an adaptation of an article that originally appeared in French)