Hauling bodies from under the rubble, Ahmed al-Dulaimi’s fighters count the cost of defending the only major city in western Iraq yet to fall to Islamic State.
Last week, at least 17 of his men were killed resisting an onslaught to capture Ramadi, the capital of Iraq’s biggest province. With government forces weakened and local government leaders fleeing to safety, tribal fighters like Dulaimi’s group are among the last standing.
“We have to fight or Islamic State will kill us,” Dulaimi said by telephone last week, as his men cleared debris from outside the government’s headquarters in the city center. “We have been abandoned by our politicians.”
Capturing Ramadi would be a major victory for Islamic State, helping tighten its grip on Sunni areas of Iraq six months after taking Mosul, Iraq’s biggest northern city. While U.S. officials say airstrikes have halted the extremist group’s momentum, Iraq’s Shiite leadership is struggling to rebuild the military and galvanize an alliance with Sunni tribes capable of taking back territory.
About a week before the al-Qaeda breakaway Sunni group laid siege to the government’s compound in Ramadi, a predominantly Sunni city, Dulaimi and other tribal leaders said only a handful of council members showed up for meetings at the Anbar province’s 30-member council. The rest chose safer places such as Baghdad about 90 kilometers (56 miles) away, the Kurdish city of Erbil, and even Dubai, according to local officials and tribal leaders.
The absence of political leadership is making the creation of a united front against Islamic State more difficult, with Sunni tribes getting caught in the middle, according to Reidar Visser, a historian specializing in Iraq.
“Whichever side the Sunni tribes choose, the danger of violent retribution from the other side is enormous,” Visser said. “Iraqi Sunnis are skeptical of Islamic State’s agenda but the government has yet to instill confidence that it will protect those who side with them.”
Islamic State militants already executed hundreds of the Anbar province’s Sunni tribesmen in reprisal attacks against those who have resisted the group. In October, they massacred more than 300 members of the Albu Nimr tribe in one of the worst atrocities committed by the group in Anbar.
The growing frustration with politicians prompted tribesmen last month to cut off water and electricity to the provincial council’s building in Ramadi. When they stormed one of the meetings to express their anger, only three members were present.
“We told them that as we put you on your chairs, so we are going to remove you from them,” said Dulaimi. “How can we reach out to the government when they are nowhere to be seen?”
While Iraqi forces have recaptured a major dam in Anbar and retained control of the al-Assad military base, the province’s largest, they have made little headway in smaller towns and villages. Fallujah, the city where the U.S military launched two major operations during its occupation of Iraq, has been under the control of Islamic State since January.
Some Sunni lawmakers say Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi, a Shiite, was slow to react.
“I have contacted Abadi and asked him to send reinforcements and for airstrikes against Islamic State in Ramadi, but the problem is that I don’t think he is realizing how serious the situation is,” Mohammed Nasir Deli, a lawmaker representing Anbar in parliament, said by phone last week.
Abadi ordered the military on Nov. 22 to provide air support and weapons to the fighters in Anbar. Less than two weeks earlier, he dismissed the commander of Anbar province along with 35 other senior officers nationwide in the biggest shakeup of the armed forces since he took office in September.
Tahseen al-Khafaji, a spokesman for Iraq’s defense ministry, blamed the government of former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki for the chaos in the province.
“There were many mistakes committed by the former government,” he said by phone on Nov. 26. “Many things have changed since. There are shortages here and there but the ministry is doing its best to send weapons and ammunition to the soldiers and the tribes fighting along the state.”
The forces protecting Ramadi include tribesmen from Albu Alwan and Albu Fahad, as well as police officers from both these tribes. Fighting has been sporadic and Dulaimi said by phone this week the city was relatively quiet.
Sheikh Aref al-Muhanna, one of Albu Alwan’s leaders, said the government’s support wasn’t enough.
“Our weapons and arms are running out and we are buying them now from war lords in Ramadi and we are also buying them from Ramadi police command,” he said by phone.
Two U.S. officials, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss intelligence matters, said the reprisal attack against the tribes represented a departure from Islamic State’s tactics of seeking to enlist support as in other areas.
Islamic State seized on the disarray to mount what the two officials described as a relatively sophisticated campaign, operating on multiple fronts under the cover of bad weather that hindered coalition airstrikes. The extremists have used boats to cross the Euphrates River, covered by barrages from artillery seized from the Iraqi army, the officials said.
The multi-front attack took Iraqi military commanders by surprise at a time when they were focusing on other parts of the country, said Wathiq al-Hashimi, an Iraqi political analyst.
“Poor coordination between Iraqi government military command and tribal forces in Anbar is one of the main reasons for Ramadi reaching this dangerous situation,” he said. “The government was very slow in responding to urgent demands from Ramadi officials to send arms and reinforcement.”