Mad Max-Style Takeover of Ramadi Leaves Obama and West Floundering
The beginning of the end of the battle for Ramadi was signalled by a hulking bulldozer emerging through a swirling sandstorm.
With a suicide bomber at the wheel and armoured plates welded to its chassis, the vehicle crashed through concrete blast barriers surrounding the Iraqi police headquarters. Then its explosive load was detonated.
In post-Apocalyptic scenes reminiscent of Mad Max, waves of fortified dump trucks and souped-up Humvees followed as fighters fanned out across Ramadi, the capital of Iraq’s Anbar province.
Just a few days later across the Syrian border, Isis also captured Palmyra, the first major Syrian city it had taken from President Bashar al-Assad’s forces. The co-ordinated onslaught on two fronts stunned the White House and threw President Barack Obama’s strategy in the Middle East — such as it is — into disarray.
The Humvees used in Ramadi were made in Indiana and shipped over by the US military after the Iraq invasion. They were transferred to the Iraqi army but were captured by Isis in the northern city of Mosul.
In 2008, after the so-called Awakening, in which Sunni tribal leaders and US forces expelled the fanatics of al-Qaeda in Iraq, Ramadi had been at peace. At the ceremony to hand control to Iraqi forces, many US marines were unarmed.
It is possible that I rode in one of the vehicles with the marines back in 2004. Then, the 2/4 battalion I was with, known since Vietnam as the Magnificent Bastards, suffered 34 killed and 255 wounded in six months. Altogether, 1,332 American troops were to die in Anbar.
The American blood spilt in the earlier battle for Ramadi made its fall intensely painful in the United States. “It breaks my heart,” said General John Kelly, a former marine commander in Anbar.
In the final phase of the latest battle, about 30 vehicle-borne suicide bombs ripped through Ramadi. About 10 of them were estimated to be the size of the Oklahoma City bomb, which killed 168 Americans two decades ago.
A senior State Department official described the blasts as “horrific, gigantic explosions that took out entire city blocks”. By the end of last weekend the black flags of Isis were flying over the Iraqi city.
Those Iraqi army troops who were not killed or captured simply ran away. Isis is thought likely to have beheaded its prisoners.
Palmyra — which I visited in 2005 when it was an oasis of peace compared to the raging turmoil in Iraq — is not only the site of breathtaking antiquities but also a strategic asset, lying on the routes to Damascus to the west and Baghdad to the east.
Isis now controls half of Syria, including most of its oilfields, as well as Iraq’s Sunni strongholds of Mosul and Ramadi, which is only 70 miles from Baghdad. The recapture of Tikrit from Isis last month may prove to have been a hollow victory.
On Saturday, it was reported that 3,000 Iranian-backed Shi’ite militia members were moving towards Ramadi in preparation for an attempt to drive out Isis forces, raising the spectre of a full-scale sectarian bloodbath. This could ultimately extend Iranian influence in Iraq and expand a dangerous proxy war between Sunni and Shi’ite Islam.
Senior US military officers and intelligence officials agree that Obama’s counter-Isis strategy of limited airstrikes, a handful of special forces raids and the small-scale training of Iraqi forces needs to be overhauled.
“The conceptual plan is fundamentally flawed,” Jack Keane, a former general and an architect of the Iraq surge in 2007, told Congress last week. “The resources provided to support Iraq are far from adequate... We are not only failing, we are in fact losing this war.”
As a presidential candidate in 2008, Obama had promised to end what he called a “dumb war” in Iraq and repair relations with the Arab world. By the time he ran for re-election in 2012 he boasted that the core of al-Qaeda had been “decimated”.
Now a terrorist army of unspeakable viciousness is in control of 500 miles of the Euphrates river valley, stretching southeast from Kobane on the Turkish border to Fallujah, almost at the gates of Baghdad.
While Obama has insisted that the fall of Ramadi is a mere “tactical setback”, the State Department official conceded that the United States was reeling in the face of the Isis threat.
“We’ve never seen a terrorist organisation with 22,000 foreign fighters from 100 countries all around the world,” he said. “It’s about double of what went into Afghanistan over 10 years in the war against the Soviet Union.”
With the 2016 presidential election campaign already under way, recriminations over President George W Bush’s invasion of Iraq in 2003 and Obama’s decision to pull out all troops at the end of 2011 are dominating the political agenda.
More urgent, however, is the question of what Isis plans to do next and how — or even whether — the West can stop it.
Kevin Carroll, a former CIA operative with extensive experience in Anbar, believes Baghdad is an obvious target for Isis. “Anybody who says that a guy called Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi [the leader of Isis] doesn’t intend to seize Baghdad is whistling past the graveyard,” Carroll said.
“Granted it’s a majority Shi’ite city, but I’m afraid they will repeat what they did in Ramadi — blow up parts of the defensive ring around Baghdad and then rush in with the main force.”
Charles Lister, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Doha Centre, said an increase in terrorist attacks around the capital was likely, but Isis was “smart enough to know that they’re not going to suddenly capture Baghdad”.
Isis would concentrate on consolidating the territory it already holds, he said, but expanding beyond Syria and Iraq was a real prospect. The terrorist group has made gains in Afghanistan since US and British troops left, as well as establishing footholds in Gaza, Egypt’s Sinai desert and Nigeria.
“Lebanon is definitely on their horizon,” said Lister, because it offered the propaganda boost of taking on the Shi’ite group Hezbollah, an Iranian proxy. Somalia will be next on their target list in terms of the broader international dynamic. It’s ripe for the picking for them.”
Friday’s suicide bombing by Isis of a Shi’ite mosque in eastern Saudi Arabia, which killed at least 21 people, was an ominous development.
“Saudi Arabia is absolutely pivotal in terms of their overall ideology,” said Lister.
“You can’t present yourself as the only legitimate representative of Islam and allow Saudi Arabia to continue to be the custodian of Mecca and Medina.”
A Republican hawk on Capitol Hill said he believed Obama’s overriding goal in the Middle East is to secure a nuclear deal with Iran so that he can reopen diplomatic relations with Tehran and claim a historic achievement for his legacy.
“He’s detached from the reality he has created... Allies [such as the Gulf states and Israel] no longer trust us. In fact, they hold us in open contempt.
“Yemen is now home to not one terrorist group but two. Egypt has vacillated between three different governments. Libya is infested by Islamic State.”
The hawk said he supports Keane’s call for up to 20,000 American troops to be sent to Iraq, including forward air controllers and special forces units, along with attack helicopters, to bolster the current 3,000.
Isis and its supporters are increasingly threatening direct attacks on the West and intelligence agencies are bracing themselves for more “lone wolf” terrorist strikes.
This week, Americans mark Memorial Day by reflecting on the lives lost in Iraq and Afghanistan, many on ground now held by Isis.
In Ramadi 11 years ago I attended a memorial service for Sergeant Kenneth Conde Jr, 23, a marine who had fought like a lion even when wounded by a bullet through his shoulder, only to be killed by a roadside bomb weeks later.
His father, Kenneth Conde Sr, himself a former marine, told me from Orlando, Florida, last week that the fall of Ramadi, where he had lost his only son, had been “a hard thing” for families of the dead to bear.
“What’s happening today hurts lots of families, but we can’t let that take us back to that dark side,” he said.
“It’s been a hard road to get to this point, where I’ve taken my pride to overwhelm my pain. We did accomplish a great deal over there but war is never a ‘win’ situation. No one wins wars.”