ISIS Seizes Key Iraqi City of Ramadi: What Happens Next?

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RAMADI — Now that the key Iraqi city of Ramadi has fallen into the hands of ISIS militants, what happens next?

It depends who you ask.

Iraqi and U.S. officials are maintaining that the tide will soon turn back against ISIS, whose fighters seized control of Ramadi on Sunday after a prolonged offensive using explosive-laden bulldozers and other vehicles driven by suicide bombers.

But many observers say that recovering from the loss of the strategic city — the capital of Anbar province, Iraq’s Sunni heartland — will take a long time.

“This is a huge setback to Iraqi forces and to the U.S. strategy to degrade and ultimately defeat ISIS,” said Peter Mansoor, a CNN military analyst who was a colonel in the U.S. Army.

The ISIS victory in Ramadi, after more than a year of fighting, shows the Sunni militant group’s broader resilience in the face of sustained airstrikes from the U.S.-led coalition and pressure from Kurdish forces in the north.

Backup forces bring their own challenges

The Iraqi government says reinforcements for the security forces that pulled out of Anbar on Sunday are already on their way. Ramadi is just 110 kilometers (70 miles) west of Baghdad, the heavily fortified capital.

But the nature of the forces believed to be heading to Anbar to take on ISIS there could present challenges.

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has ordered the Hashd Al-Shaabi paramilitary force — also known as the Popular Mobilization Units — to prepare for deployment. It will be joined by Iraqi security forces and Sunni tribal volunteers.

The decision to mobilize the paramilitary force, which is Iranian-backed and predominantly Shiite, follows a request for help from Anbar provincial officials, tribal leaders and religious clerics.

Concerns about role of Shiite forces

The Shiite forces that are part of the Popular Mobilization Units helped the Iraqi army retake the city of Tikrit from ISIS in March. But their involvement prompted fears that it could inflame sectarian tensions, and their ties to Iran complicated the use of airstrikes by the U.S. coalition.

Sending Shiite forces to fight ISIS in the heart of Sunni Iraq raised concerns among some observers.

“That would be a different bloodbath on its own. It would be Sunni against Shia. Who knows what that would provoke?” said Robert Baer, a CNN intelligence and security analyst.

Muhannad Haimour, a spokesman for the governor of Anbar, said the Popular Mobilization Units were no longer Shiite militias but an official body governed by law.

“The governor made the position very clear that any Iraqi who wishes to defend Iraq is welcome to do so, provided that they are fighting under the Iraqi banner and under the command and control of the Iraqi official security forces,” he told CNN.

‘Hugely symbolic’ city

But the arrival of predominantly Shiite forces is likely to do little to soothe the grievances of the beleaguered Sunni tribes that have been fighting ISIS for control of Ramadi since the first half of last year.

Officials in the city have repeatedly called for more support and weapons from the Shiite-dominated government in Baghdad and for more airstrikes by the U.S.-led coalition.

But despite their warnings, one of the cities for which U.S. forces fought bitterly in 2005 and 2006 eventually fell to ISIS.

“Ramadi is hugely symbolic,” said Mansoor, a former aide to Gen. David Petraeus, who led U.S. forces in Iraq. “It’s the birthplace of the Awakening, the tribal rebellion against al Qaeda in Iraq, the forerunner to ISIS — a tribal rebellion that did so much to defeat that group back during the surge of 2007 and 2008.”

On Friday, the United States announced that it was “expediting” weapon shipments to Iraq because of the fighting in Ramadi.

Speaking from Seoul, South Korea, on Monday, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said that “large numbers” of ISIS fighters had been killed in the past few days, and that more would be killed in the coming days “because that seems to be the only thing they understand.”

“It is possible to see the kind of attack we have in Ramadi, but I am absolutely confident in the days ahead that will be reversed,” he said.

Fears of ‘bloodbath’ under ISIS

Now that the city is back in the hands of terrorists, officials are “extremely concerned about massacres that we think will be committed by ISIS,” said Haimour, the Anbar governor’s spokesman.

“On the first day that ISIS took over the city, they executed a 3-year-old girl whose father was fighting against ISIS. And he later died in battle,” he told CNN.

ISIS has a grim track record of ruthlessly slaughtering opponents it captures.

“Anybody who supported the government will probably be executed within the next 24 hours,” said Baer. “Their families will be driven out. It will be a bloodbath over the next couple of days. All the soldiers who were captured will be executed.”

A flood of residents has been pouring out of Ramadi toward safer parts of Anbar and Baghdad in recent days.

“We are witnessing a humanitarian crisis,” said Haimour, estimating that as many as 8,000 people had left the city Sunday.

As civilians fled, the heavy fighting continued.

Officials estimate that more than 500 people have been killed in the most recent clashes in Ramadi, he said, noting that some pockets of resistance against ISIS remained inside the city.

ISIS resilience, Iraqi difficulties

Some analysts said ISIS’ advances in Ramadi showed the extremist group’s tenacity.

“What’s clear to me is ISIS is enduring and will continue to endure,” said Baer.

Others said the situation reflected long-standing issues with Iraqi security forces and Western efforts to strengthen them.

“This is not about ISIS. This is about whether the Iraqi military has the capability and, more importantly, the will to face up with ISIS,” he said. “They’ve had some successes, the military has. This is a setback. It’s going to take years to figure out who will prevail.”

Baer said he thinks the fall of Ramadi rules out the likelihood of an Iraqi offensive this summer to kick ISIS out of Mosul, the northern city where government security forces fled from the militants last year.

“I think Ramadi’s probably lost for a long time, and other parts of Al-Anbar province, as well,” he said.

Haimour said it’s unfair to portray Iraqi forces as unwilling to battle ISIS. Iraqi forces fought hard in Ramadi, he said, but faced well-trained ISIS fighters with heavy weaponry who were on a suicide mission.

“They come to Anbar and Iraq to die. It’s very difficult to stop a bulldozer that’s been armored, driven by a suicide bomber, with tons of explosives,” he said. “And dealing with these fighters has been extremely difficult. It’s not a conventional war by any stretch of the imagination.”

CNN’s Hamdi Alkhshali, Catherine Shoichet, Jomana Karadsheh and Tim Lister contributed to this report.