Shiite militias converge on Iraq's Ramadi after ISIL takeover
BAGHDAD - Agence France-Presse
Displaced Iraqis from Ramadi rest gather at the Bzebiz bridge after spending the night walking towards Baghdad, as they flee their hometown, 65 km west of Baghdad, Iraq, Saturday, May 16, 2015. AP PhotoShiite militias converged on Ramadi May 18 in a bid to recapture it from jihadists who dealt the Iraqi government a stinging blow by overrunning the city in a deadly three-day blitz.
The loss of the capital of Iraq's largest province was Baghdad's worst military setback since it started clawing back territory from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) late last year.
Days after a rare message from ISIL supremo Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi urging mass mobilisation, the group came close to also seizing one of Syria's most famed heritage sites, ancient Palmyra, but the army pinned it back.
Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi had been reluctant to deploy Shiite militias to Anbar province for fear of alienating its overwhelmingly Sunni Arab population.
He favoured developing locally recruited forces, a policy that had strong US support.
But militia commanders said on Monday that Ramadi's fall had shown that the government could not do without the Popular Mobilisation units (Hashed al-Shaabi).
Badr militia chief Hadi al-Ameri said the province's leaders should have taken up his offer of help sooner.
The group's Al Ghadeer television said Ameri "holds the political representatives of Anbar responsible for the fall of Ramadi because they objected to the participation of Hashed al-Shaabi in the defence of their own people".
Various militias announced they had units already in Anbar -- including around the cities of Fallujah and Habbaniyah -- ready to close in on Ramadi and engage the city's new masters.
A spokesman for Ketaeb Hezbollah, one of the leading Shiite paramilitary groups, said his organisation had units ready to join the Ramadi front from three directions.
"Tomorrow, God willing, these reinforcements will continue towards Anbar and Ramadi and the start of operations to cleanse the areas recently captured by Daesh will be announced," Jaafar al-Husseini told AFP, using an Arabic acronym for ISIL.
Asaid Ahl al-Haq, one of the groups that has most routinely been accused of abuses, said it was discussing the details of its deployment with the government.
"When it comes to readiness, we have more than 3,000 fighters waiting for a signal from the secretary general (of Asaib) Sheikh Qais al-Khazali," spokesman Jawad al-Talabawi said.
The fall of Ramadi, some 100 kilometres (60 miles) west of Baghdad, came when beleaguered security forces pulled out of their last bases on May 17.
The jihadists used several waves of suicide car bombs to thrust into government-controlled neighbourhoods on May 14 and 15.
The black flag of ISIL was soon flying over the provincial headquarters and, with reinforcements slow to come, thousands of families fled the city.
Anbar officials said at least 500 people died in three days.
"We're continuing to monitor reports of tough fighting in Ramadi and the situation remains fluid and contested," Pentagon spokeswoman Maureen Schumann told AFP late on May 17.
Muhannad Haimour, spokesman and adviser to the Anbar governor, said fighting was continuing in some pockets of the city. Iraqi military officials said all main security bases had been abandoned.
Tensions between Tehran and Washington, Baghdad's two main foreign partners, also played out during the battle for executed dictator Saddam Hussein's hometown of Tikrit, which the government took back last month.
Abadi met the head of US Central Command, General Lloyd Austin, on May 17, and on May 18 Iranian Defence Minister Hossein Dehghan arrived in Baghdad for talks.
In the Syrian half of the "caliphate" Baghdadi proclaimed last year, ISIL failed to notch up what would have been another high-profile military victory on the ground.
Government forces repelled an ISIL advance on the ancient oasis town of Palmyra that had sparked concern that another jewel of the Middle East's architectural heritage could be destroyed by the jihadists.
"IS's [ISIL's] attack was foiled," provincial governor Talal Barazi said on May 18 after troops ousted the jihadists from the northern part of the town, which they had seized on May 16.
But the jihadists remained on the outskirts and fired a barrage of rockets into the town on May 17 night, killing at least five civilians, two of them children, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
Syrian antiquities director Mamoun Abdulkarim said two rockets struck the garden of Palmyra's museum but caused no damage to its priceless collection of statues, sarcophagi and other artefacts.
UNESCO has urged both sides to spare Palmyra, which it describes as one of the most important cultural centres of the ancient world.