The deployment of thousands of Iranian-backed Shia militiamen in the battle to retake the Iraqi city of Ramadi from Isis could plunge the country into sectarian civil war and threaten a US military installation.
Isis yesterday took control of Ramadi, the capital of Iraq’s largest province Anbar which lies just 112 km outside Baghdad, after a bloody battle in which around 500 people were reportedly killed.
Muhannad Haimour, special advisor to the governor of Anbar province, confirmed to Newsweek today that the Islamists were in control of the majority of the city.
The Islamist militants captured Ramadi after Iraqi security forces reportedly fled the city following a series of suicide bomb attacks, despite orders from Iraqi prime minister Haider al-Abadi for them to stand firm.
The victory represents a huge strategic gain for Isis. Anbar province stretches from Baghdad to the Syrian border and contains strategic road links between the two countries where Isis currently holds large swathes of territory. Isis already controls Fallujah, another major city in the Sunni-majority province.
Following the capture, al-Abadi requested assistance from the Shia militias, who played a key role in the successful re-taking of Tikrit in March. but were suspected of looting and violence towards the town’s majority-Sunni citizens in the aftermath.
Some 3,000 Shia forces have already assembled at the Habbaniyah military base 30km east of Ramadi, according to a statement released by the provincial council, as the Iraqi government musters troops for an offensive to retake the city.
However, experts say that the forces contain extreme sectarian elements and are hostile to US interests in the region, including a military air base which lies just 90 minutes outside Ramadi.
The Shia militias are commonly known as the Popular Mobilisation Forces (Hashid Shaabi). According to Professor Gareth Stansfield, Middle East director at British defence thinktank RUSI, these militias are sectarian and loyal to Iranian interests.
Stansfield says their deployment to Ramadi could spark all-out sectarian conflict between Sunnis and Shias, which would play into the hands of Isis.
“For Isis, this is exactly what they want to see happen. They don’t want to see a Iraqi military force deployed to ostensibly protect all Iraqis, they want to see Shia militia forces deployed,” says Stansfield. “If they provoke a fight with the Shia militia, it mobilises support for Isis among Sunnis in Anbar.”
Stansfield also points out that one of the militias is Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq, a highly-trained group loyal to the Iranian Revolutionary Guard which was heavily involved in fighting US-led coalition forces during the Iraq War. Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq is reported to have mobilised 1,500 fighters to back the Ramadi offensive.
For Aaron Balshan, Iraq security expert at global analysts the Levantine Group, the deployment of such hostile forces could eventually spark conflict between Iran and the US.
He says that the Al-Asad air base, which is located in Anbar province and has previously been attacked by Isis, could serve as a long-term target for Shia forces in the region if they manage to displace the militants from Ramadi.
“When you’ve got fighters that close to a US airbase, we could be facing direct military confrontation from Shia militias which are 100% backed by Iran,” says Balshan.
A provincial spokesman said that 8,000 people have fled the city following the Isis advance.Almost three million people have been displaced by the violence in Iraq since the beginning of 2014.