A group of special forces in the Iraqi military moved into the center of Ramadi in the country’s western Anbar province Friday night, sources embedded with the soldiers there told International Business Times. The move into the center of the city marked the biggest advance against the Islamic State group in the city in weeks and gave the government the upper hand in the battle that has raged for nearly six months and displaced almost 55,000 people, according the United Nations.
Videos and photographs obtained by IBT show an Iraqi rapid reaction force dubbed “Roger” -- with tanks and weapons seized in eastern Ramadi -- on the outside of the city. The special forces say in the video that they will use use the tanks taken from ISIS to move into the center of the city and to ultimately defeat the militant group. The forces have to move from the east because government forces have cleared only that path of improvised explosive devices hidden in the ground, according to Azhar Shlalee, an Iraqi embedded with the rapid reaction force.
The advancement of government forces in Ramadi came just hours after Kurdish military forces claimed victory in Sinjar, a northern Iraqi town seized by ISIS last year. The battle for Sinjar forced thousands of Yazidis, an ethnic minority in Iraq, to flee with the help of Iraqi and American helicopter rescues. The recapture of Sinjar by Kurdish forces is the single biggest win for government forces in the battle against ISIS since the liberation of Tikrit, Saddam Hussein’s hometown, in April.
If pro-government forces ecapture Ramadi from ISIS in the next few weeks, as they plan to, the win, combined with the victory in Sinjar, would make it nearly impossible for ISIS to hold any leverage over the government forces. ISIS no longer holds any of the supply lines that connect northern Iraq to its headquarters in Raqqa. The militant group would also no longer hold significant ground in Anbar province, the Sunni heartland in Iraq, where they receive key financial backing and weapons.
Anbar province is predominantly inhabited by Sunni tribes and is governed by Sunni families that have amassed money and prestige over several decades. The Islamic State group is also mostly Sunni, a sect of Islam that differs from the Shiite-dominated Iraqi government. Many of the men fighting the Islamic State group in the region were part of the U.S.'s “Sunni Awakening” strategy in 2007 that funneled arms to Sunni tribes in western Iraq to stop al Qaeda.
The U.S. tried to implement a similar strategy against ISIS and enlisted tribal leaders to lead the fight against the Islamic State group using American weapons. But that strategy fell apart because the weapons the U.S. promised never made it into the hands of the tribes in Anbar, Iraqi leaders told IBT. The Sunni tribes were outgunned by ISIS, and now we know that was happening also because the Sunni militant group was being supported from within the province.
Some Sunni tribal leaders in Iraq’s Anbar province helped the Islamic State group take over the provincial capital Ramadi, officials in the city said in interviews with IBT in May. The tribal leaders provided the Sunni militant group with intelligence, cash and weapons.
The Iraqi forces still need to clear explosive devices in the north of Ramadi, the area ISIS is using as its base in the city, Shlalee said. The problem, though, is that the Iraqi military does not have enough skilled soldiers to dismantle the improvised explosive devices. The government is currently recruiting experts from countries such as Afghanistan.
As of Friday night, the rapid reaction force soldiers were still inside Ramadi trying to open up a clearer path for other forces to enter the city en masse.