Baghdad is in ISIS crosshairs, warns Iraqi president
BAGHDAD - Iraqi President Fuad Masum said Baghdad is now in danger from Islamic State jihadist militants following their capture of the strategic western city of Ramadi, only an hour’s drive from the capital.
Masum told The Arab Weekly in a May 20th interview at his palace in Baghdad’s heavily guarded Green Zone that he is rallying the Iraqi Army and its allies to mount an offensive to recapture Ramadi, stormed by ISIS May 17th after the Iraqi military garrison collapsed and fled.
“Baghdad is certainly in danger,” Masum warned, declaring that his forces plan to defend the capital on the banks of the Tigris river while mounting a counter-offensive to drive ISIS out of Ramadi, the provincial capital of the vast Anbar province.
The fall of Ramadi is a major loss to the government of Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi and a potentially crippling setback to US-backed efforts to drive ISIS out of the large parts of western and northern Iraq the extreme Islamist militant group overran in a surprise lightning offensive in June last year.
“There’s going to be an offensive on Daesh positions and they will be kicked out of Anbar,” Masum declared, referring to ISIS by its Arabic acronym. Despite his call for action, Baghdad’s efforts to forge an effective fighting force of regular troops, Sunni tribesmen and Iranian-backed Shia militias have been hampered by tribal politics and deep Sunni distrust of al-Abadi’s government and the Shia militias formed by Tehran.
The Iraqi president denied reports that Iranian officers were helping the Iraqi Army fight ISIS. But he admitted Iraq receives “advice” from military officials from several countries, prominent among them Major-General Qassem Soleimani, commander of the elite Quds Force of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, and David Petraeus, a former commander of US forces in Iraq.
Masum addressed the sectarian problems during the interview in the Green Zone, a highly protected 10-sq. kilometre area of government offices, embassies and military headquarters in central Baghdad. The Green Zone was established by the US occupation administration after the 2003 invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein.
The president, a veteran Kurdish politician, said that once ISIS is driven out of Ramadi, a reconciliation between majority Shia and minority Sunnis, once the backbone of Saddam’s regime but marginalised since his overthrow, as well as Kurds and other ethnic groups, would follow.
But he stressed the process would exclude members of Saddam’s disbanded army and Ba’ath Socialist Party who had collaborated with ISIS and “engaged in all forms of terrorism against Iraqis and Iraq”.
Masum made an emotional appeal to the Sunni tribes in Ramadi to join Iraq’s Shia-dominated army to defeat ISIS. “We depend on the sons of Ramadi in this war,” he declared. “They’re the descendants of tribes renowned for their courage and military skills.
Among them there are many retired officers who have the experience to defend Anbar.
“In the end, Iraq is above all these political differences. All Iraqis agree on defending Anbar against sectarianism and when all the sons of Iraq are united, they can be victorious.”