War against Isis: Iran-backed militias mass near Ramadi as government calls for volunteers

The battle is once again focusing on Anbar province, which was under US occupation from 2003 as it saw some of the worst fighting in the Iraq War

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Iraq has pleaded for volunteers to fight Isis as Shia militias backed by Iran prepare for a counter-attack to recapture Ramadi.

The capital of Anbar province was overrun by the so-called Islamic State last week and militants are believed to have seized tanks, ammunition and weapons left by fleeing Iraqi soldiers.

Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi had pleaded with troops not to abandon their posts but footage showed them clinging on to trucks speeding away from the city on Sunday as charred bodies were left where they lay in the streets.

He chaired a meeting of Iraq’s Council of Ministers on Tuesday that resulted in a call for Iraqis to “stand unified” against Isis, namely by joining the army.

“The Council asserted the determination of the Iraqi government to liberate every inch of the immaculate Iraqi land from the filth of Da'esh (Isis) terrorist gangs,” a statement said.

It issued a declaration calling for “voluntary recruitment” to the army, particularly in squadrons decimated by battles across Anbar province.

The Council also vowed to prosecute those circulating unspecified “false rumours” undermining military morale and called for more international help fighting Isis with arms, supplies and money for reconstruction.

Iraqi forces said they fought off an overnight attack by Isis militants in the town of Husaiba al-Sharqiya, near Ramadi, as the group tried to consolidate its gains in Anbar, where only pockets remain under government control.

Husaiba al-Sharqiya is midway between Ramadi and Fallujah, which has been under Isis control for more than a year only 30 miles from Baghdad.

The attack confirmed suspicions that Isis is attempting to join up the two cities by taking territory in between.

Sunni-dominated Anbar province was a stronghold of support for Saddam Hussein and saw some of the worst fighting following the 2003 invasion as US troops tried to clear out al-Qaeda supporters and insurgents.

A British Isis fighter was reportedly among extremists who blew themselves up in suicide bombs during the assault on Ramadi

Ramadi was under American military occupation throughout the Iraq War, seeing bloody street battles during a rebellion known as the Battle of Ramadi in 2004 and continued fighting and attacks on US troops until withdrawal.

Local officials say 500 people were killed in battles to take Ramadi in recent weeks and migration agencies said more than 40,000 people have fled the violence.

Iran-backed Shia militias, known as Hashid Shaabi or Popular Mobilisation, are gathering with government troops at a base near the city and more reinforcements were arriving on Wednesday.

Members of the Iraqi army and Shia fighters launch a mortar toward Islamic State militants on the outskirts of Fallujah on 19 May

The ground troops are being backed by the US-led international coalition, also including Iran, carrying out air strikes. At least 25 have been carried out in the past day.

There are fears in Washington and elsewhere that the fighting in Iraq will stoke sectarian violence between Sunni and Shia Muslims and that Mr al-Abadi, who is himself a Shia, will become increasingly dependent on the Iran-backed fighters.

Isis has also been making advances in Syria, seizing part of the ancient city of Palmyra on Wednesday.

Additional reporting by agencies