Iran-backed militias 'head for Iraq's IS-held Ramadi'

The Iraqi government is reported to be sending Iran-backed Shia militias to Ramadi to recapture the city seized by Islamic State (IS) militants on Sunday.

About 500 people are reported to have died when the Iraqi military abandoned positions in the city - only 70 miles (112km) west of Baghdad.

A regional government official spoke of people fleeing Ramadi, the capital of Anbar province, "in great numbers".

But the US has said it is confident the capture of Ramadi can be reversed.

Speaking in South Korea, Secretary of State John Kerry said: "I am convinced that as the forces are redeployed and as the days flow in the weeks ahead that's going to change."

The Shia militias, known as the Popular Mobilisation (Hashid Shaabi), were key to the recapture from IS of another city, Tikrit, north of Baghdad, two months ago. But their use has raised concern in the US and elsewhere.

The militias pulled out of Tikrit following reports of widespread violence and looting. 

The Iraqi government feared the sectarian repercussions of sending Shia forces into Ramadi, a heavily Sunni area, the BBC's Jim Muir reports from Beirut.

Remains of car in city of Ramadi. 16 May 2015
Ramadi has been the scene of intense fighting
Iraqis displaced by fighting in Ramadi, 16 May 2015
Fighting has forced thousands to flee the city

The police and military made a chaotic retreat from Ramadi after days of intense fighting.

A statement purportedly from IS said its fighters had "purged the entire city". It said IS had taken the 8th Brigade army base, along with tanks and missile launchers left behind by troops.

A very well-placed source in the Anbar governor's office told the BBC Ramadi was now under the full control of IS, and all government troops had withdrawn.

An army officer told the BBC that most troops had retreated to a military base in the city of Khalidiya, east of Ramadi, despite an order from Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi for them to stand firm.

Iraqi forces retreat from Ramadi towards Baghdad. 17 May 2015
Iraqi forces could be seen retreating from Ramadi
Map of Iraq and Syria

Government troops were running out of ammunition and could not repel the massive onslaughts by IS, he said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

US air strikes in support of Iraqi forces on Sunday appear to have failed to hinder the IS advance.

Reports said Iraqi forces fled following a series of suicide car bomb attacks on Sunday.

Four almost simultaneous explosions hit police defending the Malaab district in southern Ramadi. Later, three more suicide bombers drove explosive-laden cars into the gate of the provincial military headquarters, the Anbar Operation Command, officials said.

Anbar province covers a vast stretch of the country west from the capital Baghdad to the Syrian border, and contains key roads that link Iraq to both Syria and Jordan. Ramadi's loss is seen as a severe setback for the government.

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

The deputy head of Anbar council, Faleh al-Issawi, told the BBC that more than 500 people had been killed in the last two days of fighting in and around Ramadi, including policemen who had run out of ammunition, and civilians caught in the crossfire.

Some 8,000 people have been displaced over the same period, according to the International Organisation for Migration.

The battle against IS in maps


Troubled history of Anbar province

US clear abandoned houses of insurgent fighters in Falluja, Iraq on 10 November 2004
US troops occupied Anbar for eight years, suffering heavy losses in the process
  • Iraq's largest province, which is Sunni-dominated, was occupied by US forces in 2003
  • Hostile to the US, fighting quickly broke out between US troops and the region's Sunni insurgents
  • The worst battle came in 2004, when thousands died as US troops and coalition forces struggled to take the town of Falluja
  • Fighting continued in 2005 and 2006 during which time al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) rose to prominence
  • The US declared victory in 2007 but AQI remained, resuming attacks in 2011 when US troops withdrew
  • Islamic State and other Sunni insurgents currently control much of the province


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