Ramadi was supposed to be rid of ISIS. That's not entirely true
By Andrew Tilghman
TOPSHOT - A picture taken on February 10, 2016 shows armoured vehicles of Iraqi pro-governement forces in front of damaged buildings in the Saida area in the southern outskirts of Ramadi, after they retook the region from Islamic State (IS) group jihadists. / AFP / MOADH AL-DULAIMI (Photo credit should read MOADH AL-DULAIMI/AFP/Getty Images)
Islamic State militants are mounting frequent guerrilla warfare-style attacks [[[AGAINST WHOM? IRAQI FORCES? CIVILIANS? BOTH?//A.deG.]]] in the area around a strategically important Iraqi city that was Ramadi more than five weeks after U.S. and Iraqi military officials declared the city "clear" of enemy forces only five weeks ago.
The militant groups, alternatively also known as ISIS or ISIL, hasve not seized any new territory in and around Ramadi, the capital of Anbar province. B, but an unknown number [[[THAT TRUE? OR IS THERE A # FLOATING AROUND?//A.deG.]]] of militants they are maintaining a presence in the area on the ground and regularly conducting [[[SMALL ARMS? IEDs? SUICIDE?//A.deG.]]] attacks, that exposing reveal the Iraqi aArmy's inability to keep the area secure.
"It's a manpower thing. The Iraqis have enough forces to launch these big offenses, but when they go on to the next fight, ISIS comes back. It's exactly what the Americans used to do before the surge [in 2007], the same kind of problem," said Joel Wing, an Iraq analyst and author of the blog Musings on Iraq.
The persistent ISIS presence around Ramadi has warranted almost daily air strikes on the area and highlights how tenuous the Iraqi army's hold on the city is. It also raises questions about the Iraqis' ability to secure other ISIS-held cities that are targeted for future operations — Mosul, in particular.
Since Feb. 9, when the city was deemed clear, U.S. Central Command has reported dozens of air strikes in the Ramadi area. The targets include:
38 ISIS tactical units.
24 ISIS fighting positions.
18 ISIS vehicles.
Four ISIS car-bomb facilities.
Five ISIS "bed down locations."
Two ISIS command and control nodes.
Two anti-air artillery pieces.
Iraqi forces, with the support of U.S. air strikes, mounted a long operation to retake Ramadi last year, first entering the city in December and declaring it clear of ISIS militants on Feb. 9. In the weeks since Feb. 9, CENTCOM has reported on average of two or three daily air strikes there. That pace is down from five or six strikes daily in January, when the fight for the city was near its peak, according to CENTCOM data.
A U.S. Defense Department spokesman in Baghdad downplayed the continued bombing, emphasizing that saying and said many of the air strikes reported to be targeting the Ramadi area are hitting targets outside the city center.
"Small teams of one or two terrorists, really guerrillas, if you will, will try to infiltrate into Ramadi," Army Col. Steve Warren said this week at a press briefing Wednesday. "ISIL is not operating in the city of Ramadi. ... And we don't believe they've got the capability or the combat power to try and regain any type of a foothold," Warren added said.
"ISIL is trying to conduct disruption operations," he added, "... as Iraqi forces are continuing the very difficult and painstaking process of reducing the [improvised explosive devices] and the bobby traps and the mines that they have discovered in Ramadi," Warren said. "This is a tactic that we've seen. We expected it. The Iraqis understand it and are dealing with it," Warren said."
Yet some military experts say the ongoing need for air strikes raises questions as to about whether the U.S. and Iraqi’s tactical victory over ISIS in February will hold.
"Were they really defeated?" asked Christopher Harmer, a military analyst with the Institute for the Study of War in Washington. "ISIS fights as dismounted foot infantry and when they are defeated as individual foot soldiers, they turn into IED bombers and suicide bombers," Harmer said in an interview.
"Now the Iraqi security forces and the U.S. are facing individual, solo terrorists out there. And that’s a much more difficult problem set," Harmer said. Notably, For now, the ISIS activity remains outside Ramadi's city center, mainly because the entire civilian population fled in December to escape the Iraqis' ground offensive combat operations and the barrage of U.S. air strikes.
"There is nobody really back in Ramadi yet. It's still pretty much empty. So we have to wait and see what happens when people come back," Wing said.
A member of the Iraqi security forces stands guard as worshipers attend prayer at the Dawla mosque in Ramadi on Feb. 5.
Photo Credit: AFP/Getty Images
Persistent threats in the Ramadi area are draining some of the Iraqi aArmy's time and resources from the effort to evict push ISIS from out of Hit, a city about 35 miles to Ramadi's west. "Otherwise, those forces could be used in Operation Desert Lynx to more rapidly clear through the Euphrates River Valley," Warren said, referring to the Iraqis' effort to push west and seize more ISIS-held territory.
Ramadi sits on the primary route between Syria and Baghdad. It became a top priority for U.S. and Iraqi commanders last year after ISIS overran the city in May. That prompted the White House to authorize an additional 450 U.S. troops for Iraq in June. Most of them deployed to al Taqaddum air base near Ramadi.
Defense Secretary Ash Carter offered to provide Iraqi forces in Ramadi with more American combat advisers and close-air support using U.S. Army attack helicopters, but the Iraqi government declined that additional support.
The Iraqi aArmy's counterattack on Ramadi is cited frequently by U.S. and Iraqi officials as evidence of the force's will and capability to retake Mosul, a city in northern Iraq that is several times larger than Ramadi and the largest urban area city controlled by ISIS.
"This is why Mosul is going to be so difficult, because if this pattern repeats itself in Mosul, you are talking about a multiple-years-long operation," Harmer said.
U.S. military advisers have trained about 20,000 Iraqi fighters during the past year, but many of those Iraqi troops will not take part in Mosul operations because they are tied down elsewhere in Anbar province and the areas surrounding its capital, Ramadi, Warren said.
"A lot of the fighters that we have trained are operating in Anbar and will continue to operate in Anbar. So [for Mosul] we have to train some new ones," Warren said.
About Andrew Tilghman
Andrew Tilghman is the executive editor for Military Times. He is a former Military Times Pentagon reporter and served as a Middle East correspondent for the Stars and Stripes. Before covering the military, he worked as a reporter for the Houston Chronicle in Texas, the Albany Times Union in New York and The Associated Press in Milwaukee.