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Westward offensive starts as Iraq's Ramadi catches breath

With the Mosul operation still going on and Anbar's liberated area still unstable, the Iraqi forces have launched an assault on the last Islamic State stronghold in Anbar province.
Graffiti warning on a house saying that the house is mined is seen in the city of Ramadi, January 16, 2016. Baghdad and Washington have touted Ramadi as the first major success for Iraq's U.S.-backed army since it collapsed in the face of Islamic State's lightning advance across the country's north and west in mid-2014. But the scorched-earth battlefield tactics used by both sides mean the prize is a shattered ruin. Picture taken January 16, 2016. REUTERS/Thaier Al-Sudani - RTX22WLQ

RAMADI, Iraq — A suicide attacker blew himself up at a checkpoint west of the provincial capital of Ramadi two days before the Jan. 5 launch of an offensive to retake areas in the west of the province still under Islamic State (IS) control.

Attacks and casualties continue just over a year after Ramadi, the capital of Iraq’s westernmost province, was retaken from IS, as displaced citizens make their way to the city and efforts are made to rehabilitate the buildings, restore public services and clear all areas of unexploded ordnance.

Two security officials and two civilians were killed in the attack, a military intelligence source told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity. He said the attack occurred 7 kilometers (4 miles) outside Ramadi, where internally displaced persons from nearby IS-held areas are now screened. The checkpoints were moved closer to the city just a month ago, having previously been conducted some 18 kilometers (11 miles) from the city. The two civilians killed were both displaced from Qaim along the Syrian border, he said.

The source told Al-Monitor that the operation to retake all of western Anbar would begin along two axes and that the forces had discovered and dealt with some 500 roadside bombs on the first day but had not been engaged in any direct clashes.

The operation, which will move west toward Qaim via the towns of Anah and Rawa, is expected to increase security threats to nearby cities as sleeper cells attempt to divert the security forces' attention and resources.

A few hours prior to the Jan. 3 suicide attack, Al-Monitor was riding in a vehicle carrying Amera Al-Dulaime, a member of the Anbar provincial council, through central Fallujah toward Ramadi when the road was suddenly blocked for bomb removal. Dulaime told Al-Monitor, "This always happens, but we never know beforehand when it will."

"This is a major problem for the people here," she said, noting that the British company Optima, contracted to defuse and remove the improvised explosive devices that remain along roads throughout the city, often operates during rush hour and fails to provide advance notice to the public.

She said that main thoroughfares are sometimes unexpectedly closed for an hour or more, blocking cars and angering drivers. Many inhabitants have complained to her about the extreme inconveniences the practice causes within an already precarious economic and security situation. Goods and services are still lacking throughout much of the city.

At one point while Al-Monitor was present, soldiers starting shooting into the air to disperse the cars and angry drivers.

Dulaime, with her husband and security detail, took Al-Monitor to a building being restored to house several nongovernmental organizations in central Ramadi. Private citizens fund the work in the absence of international support. Girls studied English in a partially repaired classroom whose windows overlooked a football field filled with shouting young boys in jerseys and tracksuits. An immobile but colorful Ferris wheel stood near an intersection guarded by a soldier carrying a rocket propelled grenade.

Dozens of IS rockets and missiles have reportedly been found in recent days not far from the city. Huge weapons caches were uncovered immediately after the liberation of the city and more are occasionally discovered in outlying areas.

A few blocks away were areas that seemed utterly uninhabitable after the destruction from and following the fighting in late 2015. Exploring them, Al-Monitor found many displaced families that had all lost at least one member. Most had been displaced several times. One family of returnees said that despite the damage their rented home sustained during the fighting, the Baghdad-based owner was forcing them to pay the same amount of rent as before. Gaping holes had been left in a wall and part of the roof.

Al-Monitor interviewed the head of the provincial council, Ahmed Hameed Al-Sharqi, at his office in Ramadi. He recently replaced his predecessor, who was dismissed over allegations of corruption. Prior to his current position, the former army and police officer had been head of the Anbar province security committee.

After taking part of the Sunni Awakening in 2006, Sharqi was jailed for a period by the central government and released only after his family paid several thousand dollars, he said, adding that the US military — with whom he had worked for years — had also acted as a mediator to secure his release.

Sharqi stressed that his main motivation in the fight was that he had "personal scores to settle" with both al-Qaeda and IS. He told Al-Monitor, "At least 18 children from among my relatives were killed by them."

He added that his family owned some "120 homes" in the central part of the city, and that they had been targeted in retaliation for the family's opposition to al-Qaeda over the past decade.

Cemeteries in tribal-dominated villages around the city are filled with the graves of people killed in 2006, when some of the tribes rose up against al-Qaeda. Sharqi, having fought against similar groups before, knew what to expect when IS entered the city in 2014 and left immediately. He has subsequently been engaged in the fighting to win back the city.

Now, much will depend on the success of the offensive to take back the areas farther west in the province, reaching all the way to the Syrian border and concurrent with the ongoing operation to retake Mosul, further north. Iraqi military and police forces will be fighting alongside local tribal ones to clear the province entirely of IS with aerial support from the US-led international coalition.

Ramadi, as the capital and nerve center of the province, however, may well suffer retaliatory attacks and be hit as a diversional tactic just as it is struggling to get back on its feet.

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