The United States has reluctantly approved the deployment of Hashd al-Shaabi fighters to take back Ramadi from ISIS, despite warnings from US lawmakers of an increase sectarian violence due to the involvement of the Iran-backed Shiite fighters, Reuters has reported.
"The militias have a part to play in this. As long as they are controlled by the central Iraqi government, then they will participate," Pentagon spokesman Army Colonel Steve Warren told reporters Monday.
Warren added that the urban environment of the city “ limits the ability of air-power, so it creates unique challenges.”
One US official, requesting anonymity, described Ramadi as “a powder keg” and said any use of militia has “got to be dealt with very, very delicately.”
“There’s the potential it can go very, very badly,” the official said, without predicting such an outcome.
US officials said that Washington was deeply divided about the involvement of Shiite militias with links to Iran, a US rival that has been expanding its influence throughout the Middle East.
After spearheading the recapture of Tikrit, some Shiite fighters last month went on a spree of burning, looting, and violence in the Sunni Iraqi city, according to local residents.
“There are people in our government who see any involvement of Iran as anathema. There are others who say the Shiite involvement will promote sectarian violence. There are others who say that’s not true,” a second US official said on condition of anonymity.
Hawkish Republican senators, criticizing US President Barack Obama’s strategy to deal with ISIS, warned that allowing the Iran-backed Shiite militias to take part in operations to retake the Sunni city will fuel sectarian violence in the country.
“Whatever operational success Shia militias may have in Anbar would be far exceeded by the strategic damage caused by their violent sectarianism and the fear and suspicion it breeds among Iraqi Sunnis. Moreover, the prominent role of these militias continues to feed the perception of a Baghdad government unable or unwilling to protect Sunnis,” several senators said in a joint statement.
The senators offered that supporting Sunnis and allowing them to fight for themselves would be a better option.
“Defeating ISIS requires empowering Sunnis who want to rise up and fight ISIS themselves, including by integrating them into Iraq’s security forces and providing more robust American military assistance,” the senators added.
Sunni politicians have accused the government of Prime Minister Haider Abadi of failing to properly train and arm Sunni tribal forces to counter ISIS due fears the arms might be used later against Baghdad.
After two weeks of clashes, fighters from ISIS captured the municipality headquarters in the city of Ramadi, the capital of the governorate of Anbar, on Sunday.
ISIS killed up to 500 people - both Iraqi civilians and soldiers - and forced 8,000 to flee from their homes after they captured the city of Ramadi, a provincial official told AP on Monday.
"We do not have an accurate count yet, we estimate that 500 people have been killed, both civilians and military, and approximately 8,000 have fled the city. The figures could not be independently confirmed, but ISIS have in the past killed hundreds of civilians and soldiers in the aftermath of their major victories,” an Anbar spokesman, Muhannad Haimour, told AFP.
Haimour gave numbers only for the last three days, since Friday, when the battle for the city entered its final stages.
The UN has said as many as 114,000 residents fled Ramadi and surrounding villages at the height of the violence.