— -- The city of Ramadi is controlled by “hundreds” of ISIS fighters who were able to seize the city after Iraqi military commanders ordered the withdrawal of several thousand Iraqi troops from the city.
That’s according to a U.S. official who also confirmed that the withdrawal of Iraqi troops from Ramadi may have been prompted by the unexplained pullout of the elite Iraqi counterterrorism force based in the city.
The pullout of the Iraqi counterterrorism unit from Ramadi first appeared in the Kurdish news agency Rudaw.
The departure of that elite unit led other Iraqi military commanders in the city to order the departure of their troops even though they held a significant numerical superiority, the U.S. official said.
Over the weekend, Defense Secretary Ash Carter criticized the “will to fight” of Iraqi forces in Ramadi because they withdrew from the city even though “they vastly outnumbered the opposing force.”
The motivations for the elite unit’s departure remain unknown, the U.S. official said, but it was another reason provided by American officials as to why thousands of Iraqi security forces left the city.
Taken together, it appears the fall of Ramadi was due to a domino effect of circumstances.
Officials said last week that ISIS fighters launched more than 30 car bombs inside Ramadi in an effort to take over the city where fighting has been raging for more than a year and a half.
The attacks came at the same time as a sandstorm that affected ground operations. The storm also led the Iraqi commander on the ground to mistakenly believe that the sandstorm would prevent coalition airstrikes from supporting his troops, according to U.S. officials. American officials have said that the deteriorating weather conditions would not have affected the ability to conduct airstrikes.
“The Iraqi security forces did not feel that they were supported as they could have been. They did not feel they had the resources, they did not feel they were in a position to win,” said Col. Steve Warren, a Pentagon spokesman, speaking broadly about the Iraqi troop pullout from Ramadi.
Iraqi State Television announced today the start of an operation to drive ISIS out of Anbar Province and retake the provincial capital of Ramadi, though no details were provided.
“We welcome the news from Prime Minister al Abadi that they will begin a counteroffensive to retake Ramadi and we will continue to support them,” Warren said.
American officials said the Iraqi offensive to retake Ramadi had not yet begun. One U.S. official said the expectation is that it will begin in a matter of days.
The Iraqi offensive will include a mix of Iraqi military forces serving alongside 3,000 militia forces, known as the Popular Mobilization Forces, that have gathered in Habbaniyah outside of Ramadi.
Warren described “shaping operations” by the Iraqi military “to secure lines of communications, secure key road junctures and intersections and secure terrain prior to a full-on offensive.”
While the offensive had not yet begun, he said there had been clashes outside the city between forward elements of ISIS and Iraqi military forces, who are “both moving forward to conduct reconnaissance and probe each other’s positions.”