BAGHDAD Thousands of Shi'ite militiamen on Monday prepared to fight Islamic State insurgents who seized the Iraqi provincial capital Ramadi at the weekend in the biggest defeat for government forces in nearly a year.
A column of 3,000 Shi'ite militia fighters assembled at a military base near Ramadi, preparing to take on Islamic State militants advancing in armored vehicles from the captured city northwest of Baghdad, witnesses and a military officer said.
The decision by Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, who is a Shi'ite, to send in the militias to try to retake the predominantly Sunni city could add to sectarian hostility in one of the most violent parts of Iraq.
Washington, which is leading a campaign of air strikes to roll back Islamic State advances and struggling to rebuild Baghdad's shattered army, played down the significance of the loss of Ramadi, the capital of the vast western Anbar province.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said it was a "target of opportunity," that could be retaken in a matter of days, and U.S. officials insisted there would be no change in strategy despite a failure to make major advances against Islamic State.
Warplanes in the U.S.-led coalition had conducted 19 strikes near Ramadi over the past 72 hours at the request of the Iraqi security forces, a coalition spokesman said.
The Shi'ite militia, known as Hashid Shaabi or Popular Mobilization, "reached the Habbaniya base and are now on standby," said the head of the Anbar provincial council, Sabah Karhout.
MASSING FOR A FIGHT
An eyewitness described a long line of armored vehicles and trucks mounted with machine guns and rockets, flying the yellow flags of Kataib Hezbollah, one of the militia factions, heading towards the base about 30 km (20 miles) from Ramadi.
The United Nations said 25,000 people fled the city after the Islamic State attack, heading east to Baghdad. Many were believed to be running from the black-clad fighters of the militia for the second time - about 130,000 left in April.
About 500 people were killed in the fighting for Ramadi in recent days.
Islamic State said it had seized tanks and killed "dozens of apostates", its description for members of the Iraqi security forces. An eyewitness said bodies of policemen and soldiers lay in almost every street, with burnt-out military vehicles nearby.
The city's fall marked the biggest defeat since the fall of Mosul in June last year and was a blow to the anti-Islamic State forces: the U.S.-led coalition and the Iraqi security forces, which have been propped up by Iranian-backed Shi'ite militias
It was a harsh return to reality for Washington, which at the weekend had mounted a special forces raid in Syria in which it said it killed an Islamic State leader in charge of the group's black market oil and gas sales, and captured his wife.
LIMITS OF U.S.-LED STRATEGY The Iraqi government and Shi'ite paramilitaries recaptured the Tigris river city of Tikrit from Islamic State six weeks ago, the biggest advance since the militants swept through northern Iraq last year. But government forces have had less success in the valley of Iraq's other great river, the Euphrates, west of Baghdad.
An army major who fought his way out of Ramadi said government forces in the area had been ordered to regroup, but soldiers were exhausted and morale was at rock bottom.
To some analysts, the fall of Ramadi shows the limits of the U.S. strategy of attacking from the air but leaving ground fighting to Iraq's military and its Iran-backed militia allies.
"The Americans said that they have carried out air strikes against ISIS but then the group went in and defeated the local forces," said Hassan Hassan, author of a book on Islamic State. "So they really need to come up with a whole new strategy ... and really take the fight to them."
U.S. officials said there would be no strategy change and Iraqi forces were ultimately responsible for defeating Islamic State. "We will retake (Ramadi) 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," Colonel Steve Warren, the Pentagon spokesman, said.
Qassim al Fahdawi, an Iraqi government minister, said Iraqi forces lacked the professionalism, training and discipline to withstand a smaller number of skilled Islamic State fighters.
SUNNIS FEAR SHI'ITE MILITIAS
While the government in Baghdad has urged Sunni tribes in Anbar to accept help from the Shi'ite militia against Islamic State, many Sunnis view the Shi'ite militiamen as a worse threat than the jihadists. Islamic State portrays itself as a defender of Sunnis against sectarian attacks by the Iran-backed fighters.
But some Anbar tribes are so fearful of Islamic State's harsh rule that they may be open to a role even for the hated Shi'ite militias. One tribal leader, Sheikh Abu Majid al-Zoyan, said he was suspicious of the militias, but "at this stage, we welcome any force that will come and liberate us from the chokehold" of Islamic State.
Ali Akbar Velayati, a senior Iranian official, said Tehran was ready to help confront Islamic State, and he was certain the city would be "liberated".
Islamic State, which emerged as an offshoot of al Qaeda, controls large parts of Iraq and Syria in a self-proclaimed caliphate where it has carried out mass killings of members of religious minorities and beheaded hostages.
(Reporting by Baghdad Bureau; Additional reporting by Stephen Kalin, Issam Abdallah, Dan Williams, Arshad Mohammed, Phil Stewart, Roberta Rampton and David Brunnstrom; Writing by Giles Elgood and David Storey; Editing by David Stamp and Howard Goller)