20 May 2015

IS fighters prepare to defend Ramadi

7:53 am on 20 May 2015

Islamic State (IS) militants are preparing to defend the Iraqi city of Ramadi, witnesses say, as Iranian-backed militiamen gather east of the city.

An image grab taken from a video uploaded on 18 May 2015 purportedly shows an IS flag in Ramadi.

An image grab from a video uploaded on 18 May 2015 purportedly shows an IS flag in Ramadi. Photo: AFP

Residents said IS fighters had set up defensive positions and laid landmines after capturing the city on Sunday.

Militants were also going door-to-door looking for government sympathisers and throwing bodies in the Euphrates river, residents were quoted as saying.

Thousands have fled the city and the UN has warned of a humanitarian crisis.

It said some 25,000 people have left the city, only 105km west of Baghdad, in recent days, adding to a flood of people already displaced from the area. Many were sleeping in the open.

The UN said it was trying to meet the needs of those displaced, but funds were low and supplies had almost gone.

The loss of Ramadi, capital of western Anbar province, is a blow for both the Iraqi government and US strategy in the area, said the BBC's Jim Muir in Beirut.

Retaking it is a massive challenge to the Iraqi government, which has had to appeal to the Shia militias despite risks of a sectarian backlash from sending them deep into the Sunni heartland, the correspondent added.

Police and the military made a chaotic retreat from the city, which has been contested for months, after days of intense fighting. IS said it had captured tanks, armoured personnel carriers and other weapons from government bases.

Displaced Sunni Iraqis, who fled the violence in Ramadi, arrive at the outskirts of Baghdad in April 2015.

Displaced Sunni Iraqis from Ramadi reach Baghdad in April. According to the UN, more than 90,000 people have fled fighting in the area between pro-government forces and IS. Photo: AFP

Relatives of Ramadi residents told the BBC that people were worried and were not leaving their homes. The streets are almost empty but some shops have been forced to open by IS fighters.

Residents said militants have also been trying to restore electricity and water supplies and they are addressing people through loudspeakers in mosques.

Footage posted online also appears to show IS releasing inmates from a Ramadi prison.

Some 3000 Shia militiamen are said to be "on standby" at Habbaniyah military camp, some 20km east of Ramadi, in preparation for an attempt to recapture the city.

The Pentagon acknowledged on Tuesday that some of the Shia militias were not under direct control of the Iraqi government - something the US has insisted upon.

Spokesman Col Steve Warren also accepted that poor leadership in the Iraqi army was one factor in the loss of Ramadi, along with poor tactics.

The Shia militias, known as the Popular Mobilisation (al-Hashd al-Shaabi), were key to the recapture from IS of another city, Tikrit, north of Baghdad, in April.

But although their presence was welcomed by some Sunni leaders, some Ramadi residents said they feared them as much as Islamic State.

The US has not given a uniform response to the capture of Ramadi, with the Pentagon suggesting it is not tactically significant, while the state department describes it as a setback.

But the eight sorties flown over Ramadi by US forces in the past day suggest it is a pressing concern, said the BBC's Jon Sopel in Washington.

Anbar province covers a vast stretch of the country west from Baghdad to the Syrian border, and contains key roads that link Iraq to both Syria and Jordan.

IS reportedly controls more than half of Anbar's territory.

-BBC

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