Plus ça change, plus c’est la même choseWhen ISIS began its attack on Ramadi last week, the Iraqi government threw in its elite units, hoping to stem the tide of the radical Sunni advance and the overall targeting of Baghdad proper. Instead of pushing ISIS back, what transpired was a repeat of the flight from Mosul and other former Iraqi strongholds — a disorganized rout.

Yikes.

Iraqi security forces attempting to retake control of the western city of Ramadi were routed in heavy fighting Sunday, the worst defeat for Iraq’s central government since Islamic State militants stormed across the country last June.

In a replay of last year’s military debacle, elite units abandoned their U.S.-provided equipment to Islamic State fighters and fled the area, leaving several hundred soldiers surrounded in the last government-held enclave in the city.

Multiple security sources, none of whom agreed to be identified, speaking from both within the besieged Anbar Operations Center as well as with the units fleeing the city, described the fight for control of the capital of Iraq’s largest province as essentially over after reinforcements sent on Saturday to retake the city were crushed by Islamic State fighters.

Baghdad had announced the counteroffensive as a rebuttal to the obvious propaganda victory for ISIS in its initial success. That made the defeat even worse, and Jamie Dettmer argues in the Daily Beast that it ought to awaken American officials from their nonsensical fantasies about the Iraqi Army:

U.S. officials are couching the loss of Ramadi as a setback rather than a blow, arguing they had always expected ups and downs and reversals mixed in with steady progress in the fight against the Islamic extremists and their Sunni allies in Iraq. Only on Friday, Brig. Gen. Thomas Weidley, chief of staff of the Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve, was describing to reporters how ISIS is “on the defensive throughout Iraq and Syria,” although he cautioned the terror army will still have “episodic successes” but they won’t “materialize into long-term gains.”

But episodic successes can soon start mounting into a pattern of wins. Despite Friday’s successful U.S. commando raid deep into ISIS territory in Syria that left as many as 40 militants dead, including three commanders, in the last few days ISIS has managed to mount powerful counterpunches more than 60 miles apart—in Iraq’s Ramadi and Syria’s Palmyra, the desert town that contains one of the world’s most important Roman heritage sites. …

Hasakah, Ramadi, Palmyra—they all illustrate how ISIS strikes back whenever the group takes a hit both to boost the morale of its own fighters and to give the sense it remains undefeated even when it does suffer defeats. “Carry the battle to them. Don’t let them bring it to you. Put them on the defensive,” was Harry Truman’s take on how to conduct warfare. And that is exactly how ISIS fights.

John McCain appeared on Morning Joe earlier today to declare this yet another consequence of Barack Obama’s decision to withdraw all American forces from Iraq:

The fall of the critically important Iraqi city Ramadi to the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria is a “terribly significant” event that shows the need for more U.S. forces on the ground, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said Monday.

“I think it’s, unfortunately, terribly significant, capital of Anbar Province, the deaths of hundreds, the displacement of thousands and thousands,” he said Monday on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe.”

“Not the 82nd Airborne, but we’ll have to have more people on the ground and this is really serious, the fall of Ramadi,” he said. …

McCain said fault lay with former Iraqi Prime Minster Nouri al-Maliki, for firing competent military leaders. But he also blamed President Obama’s administration for withdrawing all U.S. forces in Iraq in 2011.

“I hate to be repetitious, but the fact is that thanks to the surge, we had it under control and this is another consequence of the failure of this administration and this president to leave a residual force behind,” he said.

Haider al-Abadi has also called for more boots on the ground in Anbar. The bad news? They’ll be Iranian-backed Shi’ite militias:

Iranian-aligned Shiite militias headed Monday into Anbar province a day after its capital Ramadi fell to Islamic State militants and as hundreds of police personnel, soldiers and tribal fighters abandoned the Iraqi city in a chaotic exit.

An official from one of the Shiite militias, Kitaeb Hezbollah, confirmed by text message that the group’s militiamen had entered Anbar province by Monday morning.

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi Sunday ordered the controversial Iranian-backed militias to join the fight to take back control of the city from the Islamic militants. U.S. officials have expressed concern over the divisive and increasingly powerful Iranian-backed Shiite groups.

The fall of Ramadi Sunday represented a huge victory for the Islamic State, dealing a profound blow to Iraq’s U.S.-backed government and its military campaign to drive the extremist group out of the war-ravaged country. Just 24 hours before, officials in Baghdad announced that military reinforcements had been dispatched to defend the city, in Iraq’s largest province, against a brutal assault that began Thursday.

The entry of Iranian-backed Shi’ite militias may be an even bigger victory for ISIS. The US defeated AQI in the Anbar Awakening by engaging with the Sunni tribes and promising them protection from the Shi’ite-dominated government in Baghdad. This is the antithesis of that arrangement — a central Iraqi government sending in Shi’ite shock troops to attack Sunnis. Any hope of getting the Sunni tribal leaders on board in Anbar will go out the window, even with Sunni coalition members like Jordan and Saudi Arabia launching attacks on ISIS on their behalf. To some extent, this situation is also their fault; none of the Sunni nations in the coalition want to put boots on the ground either, and they’re leaving the door wide open to a regional sectarian war as a result.

That started, though, with the decision by Obama to disengage from Iraq, a decision that led directly to Maliki’s purges and abuses of Sunnis and Kurds and the re-emergence of ISIS after its near destruction by the US in the surge. Without an effective ground force to face ISIS, there will be no defeating them — and with Shi’ite militias entering Anbar, there will be no end to the sectarian war that will result. The only hope for the West now is that both sides will spend so much time fighting each other that they will not have time to attack the West through terrorism, but that’s a slender reed to grasp.