In a major setback for the Iraqi government’s efforts to defend its hold on Ramadi, a critical regional capital, Islamic State group militants conquered the city’s government sector on Friday.
BAGHDAD — In a major setback for the Iraqi government’s efforts to defend its hold on Ramadi, a critical regional capital, Islamic State group militants conquered the city’s government sector on Friday, raising their black flag over the main compound before setting fire to it, local officials said.
The new jihadi assault began under the cover of darkness late Thursday, leading with a wave of suicide attacks carried out by militants dressed in Iraqi army uniforms, their beards shaved and driving armored Humvees.
As fighters for the Islamic State group advanced on Friday, there were reports of mass executions. Sheikh Omar Shihan al-Alwani, a tribal leader whose men have been fighting the Islamic State group there, said that more than a dozen families had been killed in his area of Ramadi, and an estimated 50 policemen and tribal fighters.
Some pro-government forces were still reported to be fighting within the city late Friday, and it was too early to declare that the entire city had fallen. But the Islamic State advance put a major new twist in the long and roiling fight for control of the city, the capital of the sprawling western desert province of Anbar.
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The jihadis’ gains also pose a critical test for the now-stalemated government effort to make gains against the Islamic State in a broader Anbar offensive.
Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi announced that effort last month in a moment of triumph, as a hybrid force of Shiite militias and government troops recaptured the city of Tikrit, north of Baghdad, from Islamic State fighters.
Al-Abadi and other government officials vowed they would retake Anbar from the militants before continuing a march north to liberate Mosul, the second-largest city in Iraq.
But the Anbar campaign has so far been ineffective, partly because of indecisiveness on the composition of the pro-government forces that would fight for the huge province.
In Tikrit, Shiite militias, some aligned with Iran, were an essential force, along with U.S. air power. In Anbar, those militias are on the sidelines, partly because of fears that their involvement would inflame sectarian tensions and make matters worse. Some Anbar leaders have called for the militias to join anyway. But the most influential leaders in the province, along with U.S. officials, have urged that Shiite militiamen not take part.
Instead, the Americans have pushed the Iraqi government to arm and train local Sunni tribesmen to do the fighting themselves, in an effort similar to the U.S.-backed Awakening program of 2007, which paid tribesmen to switch sides and fight against al-Qaida in Iraq, the predecessor to the Islamic State.
Al-Abadi has committed to doing so, but very few Sunnis have actually been trained or armed — partly because of resistance from influential Shiite leaders who fear that doing so would, in effect, build a Sunni militia that would either sell its weapons to the Islamic State, also known as ISIS, or end up fighting against the government.
Sabah Karhut, the chairman of the Anbar Provincial Council, reached Friday by phone in Amman, Jordan, said that while some pro-government fighters were still resisting in Ramadi, “the city has fallen, militarily.”
He continued: “What happened in Ramadi today was because of a very well-planned operation launched by ISIS, and the lack of a clear strategy by the government, which led to the security collapse.”
Karhut blamed the government in Baghdad for ignoring the warnings of Anbar tribal leaders, and for being slow to arm local fighters. Even so, Karhut said that on Friday he was told by officials in Baghdad that a brigade of elite counterterror forces had been dispatched to Ramadi.
By Friday evening, battles were raging between pro-government forces and militants in several pockets of Ramadi. But one senior security official in the city said that 90 percent of the city was in Islamic State hands, and unless the government in Baghdad sent more reinforcements to the city it was likely to fall completely.