Iraq's prime minister took to Facebook last month and announced a bold goal to the world. His military had just won a big victory in Tikrit, American airstrikes were helping, and ISIS appeared to be in retreat.
“Our next stand and battle will be from Anbar to liberate it entirely,” Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi wrote, referring to the largest province in Iraq, where the United States fought some of the bloodiest battles of its eight-year war.
Just six weeks later, however, the Iraqi military has suffered a humiliating loss. The fall of Anbar province's main city of Ramadi throws into greater doubt its fight against the militants, even with American help.
“It shows just how far the Iraqi forces are from being able to take care of this,” said Patrick Skinner, director of special projects for the Soufan Group, a security consulting company.
At least 500 people were killed in the fight for Ramadi and thousands more fled the city, including many who were stranded on a bridge after being denied entry to Baghdad.
The fall of the city came a little less than a year after ISIS routed the Iraqi security forces at Mosul and captured the attention of the world.
Since then, the Iraqis had focused on rebuilding their army — trained and equipped by the United States. In the meantime, Abadi, a Shiite, promised to heal divisions with minority Sunnis and Kurds.
For a time, there were successes. The Iraqis defeated ISIS at Tikrit in early April, and a week and a half later they regained control over a strategically important oil refinery in the city of Beiji.
There was talk of a major Iraqi offensive, perhaps as early as this spring, to retake Mosul. And Iraqi military commanders were told to drive ISIS out of the country entirely by year’s end. Now those plans and ambitions will have to wait.
Anbar province will have to be secured first, and that is “unlikely in the six-month outlook at least,” Zaineb al-Assam, a senior analyst at IHS Country Risk, wrote in a report on Monday.
Iraqi security commanders were meeting on Tuesday to pull together outlines of the new plans to liberate Ramadi — in coordination with the U.S.-led coalition.
Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Monday that “much effort” would be required to reclaim Ramadi alone.
Abadi is sending in Shiite militiamen to help. But that risks extending Iranian influence in Iraq, further alienating the Sunni population in Anbar and playing into the propaganda of ISIS, which craves a fight with Shiites, Skinner said.
“It just keeps proving the ineptitude of the Iraqi government and the fact that the Americans are not coming to save the Sunnis,” he said. “It helps with recruitment to say: Only the Shia militia are coming to save you. We are your true savior.”
Control of Ramadi also puts ISIS closer to Baghdad, about 70 miles away.
The capital is not in immediate danger of being overrun by ISIS. But the militants could stage incursions into Sunni-friendly neighborhoods and launch attacks that would further humiliate the Iraqi security forces and the Abadi government, al-Assam said.
The United States on Monday voiced confidence that the Iraqis could retake Ramadi. Secretary of State John Kerry stressed that the fight against the militants was always going to be difficult, especially in Anbar.
And U.S. military officials signaled no change in strategy.
“That tells me the army is smaller, weaker, and less dependable"
“We will retake it in the same way that we are slowly but surely retaking other parts of Iraq, and that is with Iraqi ground forces and coalition air power,” said Col. Steve Warren, a Pentagon spokesman.
Muhannad Haimour, a spokesman for the governor of the province, also expressed optimism that the Shiite militiamen, with international help, would be able to regain control.
“Just to be clear, no one here believes that Daesh is going to survive in Iraq much longer,” he told NBC News, using an alternate name for ISIS. “We believe we’re seeing the final chapter of Daesh.”
The Iraqi military’s rapid retreat from Ramadi seemed to suggest that it will be a long chapter.
“We knew this might be coming, we knew it would have serious consequences, yet they still couldn’t prevent it,” Michael O’Hanlon, a senior fellow and national security specialist at the Brookings Institution, told NBC News.
“That tells me the army is smaller, weaker, and less dependable not only in Anbar but nationally,” he said, “Long-term, Iraq’s odds are still pretty good, but long-term may now mean a year or longer, not weeks or months.”
Cassandra Vinograd and Keir Simmons of NBC News contributed to this report. The Associated Press and Reuters also contributed.