Hadi Mizban / AP

Shia militias deployed in bid to wrest Iraqi city of Ramadi back from ISIL

Government requests assistance from Shia groups after Anbar's capital captured, leading to 500 deaths, exodus of 8,000

Shia paramilitaries were deployed to Iraq's western province of Anbar on Monday after ISIL fighters overran the provincial capital Ramadi in the biggest defeat for the Baghdad government since last summer.

Iraqi authorities called on the Shia-led militias to lead a counteroffensive against the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) after days of vicious fighting left hundreds dead and thousands displaced. At least 3,000 fighters arrived near Ramadi on Monday and entered a military base at the provincial capital. Their presence was accompanied by an increase in US-led air strikes on ISIL positions. 

But the decision to call on Shia fighters to assist in the pushback has prompted fears that their involvement may alienate many in the mainly Sunni province. Following the recapture of Tikrit from ISIL earlier this year, Shia militias were accused of a range of human rights abuses.

Tarik al-Abdullah, secretary-general of the Al Anbar council, a group of provincial tribal leaders, told Al Jazeera on Monday that the Shia militias are “not very welcome.”

Abudullah said the government should be supplying weapons and training to volunteer fighters in the province, instead of using militias.

“We need the support of the government. We have a big number of volunteers waiting to participate to liberate our province from [ISIL],” he said.

Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has previously resisted signing off on the deployment of Shia militias, out of fear of such a backlash. But it comes amid growing concern over the plight of civilians in the besieged town

About 500 people have been killed in the fighting for Ramadi in recent days and between 6,000 and 8,000 have fled, a spokesman for the provincial governor said.

ISIL said that in Ramadi it had seized tanks and killed “dozens of apostates,” its description for members of the Iraqi security forces.

It was the biggest victory for ISIL in Iraq since security forces and Shia paramilitary groups began pushing the fighters back last year, aided by air strikes from a U.S.-led coalition.

The city's fall is a major setback for the Iraqi forces and the U.S.-led coalition fighting ISIL.

It was also a harsh return to reality for Washington, which over the weekend mounted a successful Special Forces raid in Syria in which it said it killed an ISIL leader in charge of the group's black market oil and gas sales.

The United States downplayed the fall of the city on Monday, with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry saying he believed ISIL's offensive would be reversed.

“I am convinced that as the forces are redeployed and as the days flow in the weeks ahead that's going to change, as overall [they] have been driven back ... I am absolutely confident in the days ahead that will be reversed,” Kerry said during a visit to Seoul.

The Iraqi government had vowed to liberate Anbar after routing ISIL fighters from Tikrit. But the security forces, which partly disintegrated under an ISIL onslaught last June, have struggled to make progress in the vast desert province.

An officer who withdrew from the besieged army base said ISIL — known in Arabic as Daesh — were urging them via loudspeaker to discard their weapons, promising to show mercy in return.

“Most of the troops withdrew from the operations command headquarters and Daesh fighters managed to break in from the southern gate,” the officer said. “We are retreating to the west to reach a safe area.”

Earlier on Sunday, Anbar provincial council member Athal Fahdawi described the situation in Ramadi as “total collapse.”

It was one of only a few towns and cities to have remained under government control in the desert terrain, which borders Saudi Arabia, Syria and Jordan.

ISIL now controls large parts of Iraq and Syria as a self-proclaimed caliphate in which it has massacred members of religious minorities and slaughtered Western and Arab hostages.

The United States and its allies have been pounding the group for months with air strikes in Iraq and Syria. In the 24 hours up to 1.00 a.m. ET on Sunday, the U.S.-led coalition carried out seven air strikes near Ramadi.

Al Jazeera and wire services

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