"The decision to withdraw was actually a life-saving measure. If we had not withdrawn, there would have been a massacre."
That is the assessment of an Iraqi serviceman who worked in the Anbar Operations Command in Ramadi, and whose contingent withdrew when Islamic State (IS) gunmen overran the city on May 17.
The serviceman, who spoke to RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq in Baghdad on condition of anonymity, had arrived in the Iraqi capital two days earlier from Habbaniya, the city east of Ramadi where Iraqi troops were evacuated after the pullout.
In a dramatic eyewitness account of the events immediately preceding the Iraqi Army's withdrawal, the serviceman -- who is himself from Ramadi -- described how government forces had been left depleted, woefully undersupplied, and unable to counter the attacking IS militants.
The serviceman also said that there had been insufficient air cover -- including from the U.S.-led coalition -- to help ground forces combat IS.
One day before the Iraqi soldier gave his account to RFE/RL on May 25, U.S. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter accused Iraqi forces of showing "no will to fight" and having "failed to fight" in Ramadi despite "vastly outnumber[ing]" the enemy, retreating and leaving behind large numbers of U.S.-supplied vehicles, including tanks.
Regiments 'In Name Only'
By the time Ramadi fell, Iraqi forces had not been resupplied for a month, according to the serviceman. "It was a situation of being deprived of supplies in the face of large numbers. We were regiments in name only; our ranks were depleted, with some being on leave and others who had been wounded," he said. "Even our ammunition was running low."
In response to calls to resupply the forces in Ramadi, Baghdad sent about "seven or nine" Humvees, four-wheel-drive military vehicles. But these were "certainly not sufficient, given the magnitude of the threat we were facing," the serviceman told RFE/RL.
In this situation, even the Iraqi Golden Division -- a highly capable, U.S.-trained special-forces unit commanded by Major General Fadhil Jalil al-Barwari -- was forced to withdraw, a move that has been seen as a turning point in the battle for Ramadi. (Barwari, who refused to comment on the retreat, described the withdrawal of his forces as "tactical.")
Not Enough Air Strikes?
As IS resupplied its forces from Mosul and Salahuddin, Iraqi forces inside Ramadi were said to have found themselves overwhelmed.
Iraqi troops were told that air cover would be intensified. But the Iraqi Air Force had "limited capabilities," the serviceman said.
The serviceman also said the U.S.-led coalition had not provided enough air support to help Iraqi ground forces combat IS. "As far as the American, Australian, and other coalition warplanes were concerned, they came in only in the event of a major attack," he said.
The eyewitness account echoes comments from Iraqi military officials who said that while the U.S.-led coalition had bombed the edges of Ramadi, there had not been enough air strikes.
The serviceman also spoke of the difficulties with intelligence and with coordination between the Iraqi ground troops, Baghdad, and the U.S.-led coalition.
While ground units had supplied Baghdad with intelligence about IS movements -- including that many of the IS militants who had been driven out of Salahuddin Province were making their way across the desert to Anbar -- the Iraqi government found itself "between a rock and a hard place" when it came to responding.
Iraq had difficulties requesting air support from the U.S.-led coalition. "Their planes fly in line with their own orders, not ours," the serviceman said.
And calling in the Iran-backed Shi'ite militia, the Popular Mobilization Units, would have meant a "touchy political decision," the serviceman added.
Isolated Amid IS Surge
The serviceman described how Iraqi forces found themselves trapped and surrounded after IS gunmen moved into Ramadi city center and its government complex. "We were caught in the middle," he said.
His unit cut off from ground troops to the east of the city, who had already begun withdrawing to the town of Habbaniya east of Ramadi, the serviceman said his comrades were "left isolated."
IS infiltrated Ramadi from the Albu Farraj area across the Euphrates River to the north of the city, taking advantage of the dry riverbed to cross on foot.
Once they reached the city center, IS carried out several suicide truck bombings and used armored earth-moving equipment and trucks to destroy defenses. The day before the withdrawal, IS detonated 25 truck bombs at the Anbar Operations Headquarters, according to the serviceman.
"We realized we were surrounded," he said. "There were 1,500 of us in that small 3-square-kilometer circle."
The serviceman rejected claims that Iraqi troops had crumbled in the face of just a small number of Iraqi fighters. He said that the total IS force had been "in the hundreds."
No Will To Fight?
The serviceman also contradicted Carter's suggestion that Iraqi troops had "no will to fight" in Ramadi.
The serviceman said that Iraqi forces did have the desire to try to retake the town. "I would be lying if I said we don't have the desire," he said. "But desire without the needed wherewithal is not enough."
To recapture Ramadi would require a "concentrated air campaign" alongside heavy ground-troop deployment in eastern Ramadi and Habbaniya, the serviceman said.
And the Iraqi government announced on May 26 that it had launched an operation to retake Anbar Province from IS. The announcement, on Iraqi state television, came a day after Iraq's prime minister, Haidar al-Abadi, told the BBC that his forces would take back Ramadi "within days."
Meanwhile, the IS takeover of Ramadi has exacerbated the humanitarian crisis in Anbar and in Baghdad. More than 55,000 people have fled Ramadi since IS overran the city, the United Nations Population Fund has said.
-- Joanna Paraszczuk based on an interview conducted by RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq