05/27/2015, 00.00
IRAQ
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Iraqis begin assault on Ramadi, raising fears of sectarian violence

Regular Iraqi army troops and Shia paramilitary are leading the attack code-named after the founder of Shia Islam’s founder Hussein. This is raising fears of sectarian violence and retribution because the region of operation is overwhelmingly Sunni.

Baghdad (AsiaNews/Agencies) – The Iraqi army announced that it launched an offensive aimed at isolating Islamic State (IS) fighters in Anbar province before it starts the assault on the provincial capital of Ramadi, which fell to jihadists ten days ago.

"The Iraqi security forces and Hashed al-Shaabi (pictured) have now cut off all supply routes for IS in Ramadi from the south," provincial council member Arkan Khalaf al-Tarmuz said. Hashed al-Shaabi (popular mobilisation in Arabic) is Shia paramilitary group.

The code name given to the operation – ‘Labaik ya Hussein’ (We are at your service, Hussein) –  has been openly criticised by Washington because it refers to Shia Islam’s founder, whose death in 680 at the hands of Sunni Umayyad led to the division of the Islamic world and subsequent battles.

The reference is seen not only as a challenge to Sunnis, because of the Shia connection, but also as a threat. When Tikrit, another Sunni city, was reconquered in March, Shia “volunteers” carried out acts of violence and destruction.

Not surprisingly, Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi and his US allies have been reluctant to deploy the Iran-backed Shia militia in Anbar, a predominantly Sunni province. However, they agree because all the forces were placed under the command of the Iraqi army.

Still, the Pentagon expressed disappointment on Tuesday over a decision by Iraqi militias to impose an explicitly Shia name for a military operation in Iraq's Sunni heartland, saying it could aggravate sectarian tensions.

"I think it's unhelpful," Pentagon spokesman Colonel Steven Warren said.

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