BAGHDAD: Iraqi forces retook territory from the Islamic State (IS) [group east of Ramadi Saturday, commanders said, in their first counterattack since the jihadists’ capture of the Anbar provincial capital last week.
In Iraq, a mosaic of anti-IS forces have massed in the Euphrates Valley to ready for an offensive aimed at turning the tide on the rampant jihadists.
The May 17 takeover of Ramadi was Baghdad’s worst defeat in almost a year, while the capture three days later of the historic Syrian city of Palmyra has put its archaeological treasures in peril and positioned IS for a possible drive on Damascus.
Security officials said an operation was launched early Saturday to retake Husaybah, a town seven kilometers (4.5 miles) east of Ramadi in the Euphrates Valley, that IS had seized earlier in the week.
“The Husaybah area is now under full control and the forces are now advancing to liberate neighbouring Jweibah,” a police colonel told Agence France-Presse from the front.
The area’s most prominent Sunni tribal leader, Sheikh Rafia Abdelkarim al-Fahdawi, deployed his forces, whose knowledge of the terrain is key, alongside fighters from the Hashed al-Shaabi, an umbrella for Shiite militia and volunteers.
The police colonel said the Husaybah operation also involved local and federal police, the interior ministry’s rapid intervention force as well as the army.
Stopping the rot
Swift action was seen as essential to prevent IS from laying booby traps across Ramadi, which would make any advance in the city more risky and complicated.
But government and allied forces were also keen to prevent further losses as IS used its momentum after seizing Ramadi to take more land to the east of the city.
“What happened in Anbar is very similar to what happened last year in Diyala, Mosul and Salaheddin,” said Ahmed al-Assadi, spokesman of the Hashed al-Shaabi (popular mobilization).
He was referring to the debacle of security forces when IS-led fighters swept across Iraq’s Sunni Arab heartland in June last year, bringing Iraq to the brink of collapse.
Some Iraqi forces were criticized for avoiding battle during the fall of Ramadi, which led Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi to call in the Hashed al-Shaabi.
He and Washington had opposed the mass deployment in the Sunni province of Anbar of militia groups with direct ties to Iran and a dubious human rights record.
However, the strategy of US-led coalition air strikes while the security apparatus gets revamped has failed to keep up with the pace of IS advances.
Washington tried to remain upbeat after the loss of Ramadi and Palmyra, playing down the IS advance as tactical setbacks.