Baghdad, Asharq Al-Awsat—After two days of fighting, the city of Ramadi, the provincial capital of Iraq’s largest governorate, Anbar, has been captured by fighters from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) amid a “complete withdrawal” of Iraqi government forces from the city.
Sheikh Wissam Al-Hardan, the head of Anbar’s tribal volunteer militias, told Asharq Al-Awsat on Sunday that Ramadi had now “fallen completely into the hands of ISIS.”
He said the head of the Anbar police force, and the commanders of government troops stationed in Ramadi, bore “complete responsibility for the fall of the city.”
Col. Jabbar Al-Asafi, a senior figure from Anbar’s police force, also confirmed the “complete withdrawal” of all military, tribal, and police forces from the city.
Muhanad Haymour, a spokesman and adviser to Anbar’s governor, Suhaib Al-Rawi, told AFP on Sunday that the Anbar operations command center in the city had been “cleared,” adding that some 500 people were likely killed during the fighting, among them civilians.
A colonel in the Iraqi armed forces, meanwhile, also told AFP his troops had withdrawn from the city and that ISIS “has just taken full control of all main security bases” there.
The extremist group has had a presence in the Anbar province since January of 2014, and took control of considerable swaths of Ramadi following its lightning advance across much of northern and western Iraq in June of that year.
ISIS began a renewed offensive to capture a larger part of the city on Thursday, launching a series of suicide bomb attacks and ground assaults on Iraqi troops stationed at the provincial government building complex.
The news of Ramadi’s takeover by ISIS marks a significant blow to efforts by the Iraqi government, in concert with Shi’ite volunteer militias, to retake territory captured by ISIS.
These efforts include a successful offensive in April which saw government forces and Shi’ite militias liberate the central city of Tikrit from ISIS.
Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi had urged Iraqi troops and militias to hold their posts in the city, hoping to avoid a repeat of the withdrawal of troops from Iraq’s second city Mosul in June of 2014 when ISIS captured the city, Iraq’s second-largest.
Iraqi forces were heavily criticized for their performance in Mosul, reportedly fleeing their posts as soon as they received word ISIS forces were approaching the city.
Hardan told Asharq Al-Awsat he believed “exactly the same thing that happened in Mosul” had been repeated in Ramadi on Sunday, accusing the head of the Anbar police force of leaving his post on Friday after the fighting began and military commanders of “colluding” with the extremist group, to virtually “hand them the city.”
Sheikh Rafie Al-Fahdawi, the head of Anbar’s prominent Sunni Albufahd tribe, told Asharq Al-Awsat despite Ramadi falling to ISIS, Sunni tribesmen continued to attack the group on the outskirts of the city.
He also blamed Abadi’s government for the city falling to ISIS.
“There has been a complete failure here on behalf of the federal government as a result of its not adequately arming and training [Sunni] tribes, who alone in Anbar know how to fight ISIS,” he said.
“All we lack is weapons and ammunition, and this is what we have asked of the Baghdad government time and time again, but to no avail.”
Sunni tribal militias in Anbar complain they have been sidelined by Abadi’s government in favor of Shi’ite militias, with Baghdad reportedly ignoring calls for them to be adequately armed and trained to fight against ISIS.
Anbar province has been a hotbed of Sunni anger since the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, and residents have also long complained of marginalization by successive Shi’ite-led governments since the first post-Saddam government in 2006.
In a statement on Sunday, Abadi said he had now tasked Shi’ite volunteer militias to head to Ramadi to liberate the city from ISIS, after Anbar’s provincial council had voted in favor of the move and directly requested the government send the volunteer forces.
Shi’ite militias in Iraq have been accused of committing atrocities in areas they have liberated from ISIS.
In March a report from Human Rights Watch said the militias—known as the Popular Mobilization—had carried out numerous human rights abuses in the town of Amerli in eastern Iraq, burning homes and looting property belonging to Sunni residents in surrounding villages—some evidence even suggested entire villages had been burned
The Popular Mobilization have also been accused of carrying out revenge attacks against Sunni residents in Tikrit following their entry into the city, with some reports of mass killings of civilians.
Manaf Al-Obaidi contributed additional reporting from Baghdad.