The Washington Post reports: Iraqi forces have seized from Islamic State militants a string of hamlets and villages in the dust-choked desert southeast of Ramadi in recent days, closing in on the key city for a counteroffensive.
But the yellow-and-green flags that line the sides of the newly secured roads and flutter from rooftops leave no doubt as to who is leading the fighting here: Kitaeb Hezbollah, a Shiite militia designated a terrorist organization by the United States.
Iraq’s two main allies — Iran and the United States — have vied for influence over Iraq’s battle to retake ground from Islamic State militants in the past year. While Iranian-linked Shiite militias have spearheaded the fight elsewhere, the U.S.-backed Iraqi army and counterterrorism units had been on the front lines in Anbar province, supported by an eight-month American-led air campaign.
But with the fall of Ramadi, the province’s capital, this month, paramilitary forces close to Iran are now taking the upper hand. They include groups such as Kitaeb Hezbollah, responsible for thousands of attacks on U.S. soldiers who fought in Iraq after the 2003 invasion.
Until recently, the Iraqi government had held back from ordering Iraq’s so-called popular mobilization units, a mix of Shiite militias and volunteers that formed last summer, to Anbar. Authorities were concerned that sending them to battle in a Sunni majority province could provoke sectarian conflicts. But Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi dispatched them when regular forces crumbled in Ramadi and local politicians asked for the units’ help.
Now Shiite militias including the Badr Organization are pressing toward the city from the northeast, in an operation its commanders claim to be planning and leading. Meanwhile, a push to flank Ramadi from the southeast is dominated by Kitaeb Hezbollah. [Continue reading…]