Baghdad: Daesh terrorists searched door-to-door for policemen and pro-government fighters and threw bodies in the Euphrates River in a bloody purge on Monday after capturing the strategic city of Ramadi, their biggest victory since overrunning much of northern and western Iraq last year.
Some 500 civilians and soldiers died in the extremist killing spree since the final push for Ramadi began on Friday, authorities said.
Responding to a call from Prime Minister Haider Al Abadi, hundreds of Iranian-allied militiamen rushed to a military base near Ramadi, the capital of Al Anbar province, to prepare for an assault to try to retake the city, Al Anbar officials said.
The order came despite Obama administration concerns that the presence of Shiite fighters in the Sunni-dominated region could spark sectarian bloodshed. Until now, the defence of Al Anbar has been in the hands of the Iraqi military fighting alongside tribesmen, who Al Abadi’s government had vowed to arm and support — something it has done only sporadically.
The militias have been key to victories against Daesh on other fronts north of Baghdad in recent months. But they have also been widely criticised over accusations of extrajudicial killings of Sunnis, as well as of looting and torching Sunni property — charges militia leaders deny.
In the face of Daesh’s brutality, some Sunnis appeared ready to accept help even from the Shiite militiamen.
‘Two faces of same coin’
“We welcome any group, including Shiite militias, to come and help us in liberating the city from the militants,” said tribal leader Naeem Al Gauoud, who fought to defend Ramadi and criticised what he called “lack of good planning by the military.”
But Abu Ammar, another Al Anbar native who owns a grocery store in Ramadi, said he saw no difference between Daesh’s brutal practices and those of militiamen.
“If the Shiite militias enter Ramadi, they will do the same things being done by Daesh,” he said. “In both cases, we will be either killed or displaced. For us, the militias and Daesh militants are two faces of the same coin.”
The fall of Ramadi prompted Iran’s defence minister, General Hussain Dehghan, to make a surprise visit to Baghdad for urgent talks with Iraqi leaders. He met with Al Abadi, who praised Iran’s support for Iraq in the face of the militants.
The loss of Ramadi was a stunning defeat for Iraq’s security forces and military, which fled as Daesh terrorists overwhelmed their last hold-out positions despite the support of US-led air strikes. Online video showed Humvees, trucks and other equipment speeding out of Ramadi, with soldiers desperate to reach safety gripping onto their sides.
Since Friday, when the battle for the city entered its final stages, an estimated 500 people have been killed, both civilians and military, said a spokesman for the Al Anbar provincial government, Muhannad Haimour. The figures could not be independently confirmed, but Daesh terrorists have in the past killed hundreds of civilians and soldiers in the aftermath of their major victories.
Some 8,000 people also fled the city, Haimour said. It was not immediately clear how many people remained in Ramadi — once a city of 850,000 that has been draining population for months amid fighting with the extremists besieging it. An enormous exodus took place in April, when the UN estimates some 114,000 residents streamed out of Ramadi and surrounding villages.
On Monday, UN deputy spokesman Farhan Haq said more than 6,500 families had fled in recent days, with the hospital in the nearby city of Khaldiya reporting many casualties.
Ramadi’s streets were deserted a day after the city’s fall, with only a few people venturing out of their homes to search for food, according to residents.
They said Daesh terrorists were going door-to-door with lists of government sympathisers, and breaking into the homes of policemen and pro-government tribesmen, particularly those from the large Al Bu Alwan tribe, some 30 of whom had been detained. Homes and stores owned by pro-government Sunni militiamen were looted or torched.
The residents spoke on condition of anonymity because they feared reprisals by the militants.
Sunday’s defeat in Ramadi, 115 kilometres west of Baghdad, recalled the collapse of Iraqi forces last summer in the face of a blitz by the terrorist group, when it took the northern city of Mosul and swept over much of the north and west of the country. Later, Daesh declared a caliphate, or Islamic state, in areas under its control in Iraq and neighbouring Syria.
Backed by air strikes from a US-led coalition since August, Iraqi forces and allied militias have recaptured some of the areas seized by Daesh over the past year. But the new defeat in Al Anbar calls into question the Obama administration’s hopes of relying solely on air power to support Iraqi forces in the battle against Daesh, as well as whether these forces have sufficiently recovered from last year’s stunning defeats.
The White House conceded on Monday that the loss of Ramadi was “indeed a setback” and reassured Baghdad that it will help Iraqi forces take it back.
The United States, said White House spokesman Eric Schultz, always knew this would be a long fight with ebbs and flows. “Our aircraft are in the air right now and searching for Daesh targets. They will continue to do so until Ramadi is retaken,” he said.
The US-led coalition launched eight air strikes in the Ramadi area over the past 24 hours as part of an intensified air campaign of 32 air strikes over the past three weeks.
The terrorists are now believed to control more than 60 per cent of Al Anbar, which stretches from the western edge of Baghdad all the way to Syria, Jordan and Saudi Arabia. The mostly desert province, where the population is almost entirely from Iraq’s Sunni minority, was a heartland of the Sunni insurgency against US troops following the 2003 US-led invasion that toppled dictator Saddam Hussain.