NEBAI, IRAQ: Iraqi forces will make no immediate attempt to recapture the city of Ramadi from Isil jihadists, the country's most powerful military chief told The Daily Telegraph, contradicting political leaders.
In an interview behind the front lines of the fight against Isil north-east of the city, Hadi al-Ameri insisted the fall of Ramadi would not make him change his long-term strategy to defeat Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isil).
Mr Ameri is leader of the Hashed al-Sha'abi, or Popular Mobilisation Units, the coalition of militias which are now doing most of the fighting against Isil outside Kurdish areas since the collapse of the Iraqi army.
He has been leading an operation to isolate Isil from major centres of population along Iraq's central spine, and to cut off Isil supply routes through the desert - an operation with no clear timescale.
He described as "laughable" the idea that Ramadi could or should be counter-attacked immediately, as the prime minister and other leaders have promised.
"Anyone who tells you we can retrieve Ramadi without this current operation is a liar," he said.
Before it fell on May 17, Ramadi, the capital of the largely Sunni Anbar province, had been fought over by army and police units on one side and Isil on the other since early 2014.
The defeat was a political disaster for the US, which had provided air cover. Iraqi officials said the Americans had insisted on leaving the defence of Ramadi to local Sunni tribes, the army and the US-led coalition, rather than sending in the Hashed al-Sha'abi, which mainly comprises Shia militias allied to Iran.
The Americans said they feared that allowing the militias to retake a Sunni area would risk sectarian reprisals and strengthen support for Isil, a Sunni supremacist group.
The failure of the American strategy has greatly strengthened the hand of the Hashed al-Sha'abi, with Mr Ameri, their charismatic leader, fast becoming one of Iraq's most powerful men.
Unlike the army, the Hashed have won a series of victories against Isil, including retaking key towns north of Baghdad such as Dhuluiya and Tikrit.
In his interview, Mr Ameri made no bones about the implications of Ramadi's fall. "The Americans told Anbar [leaders] not to let the Hashed in, and that they would guarantee Ramadi wouldn't fall to Isil," he said, asking why he should waste the lives of his men on a swift attempt to retake it for political reasons.
"It's a lesson to them, that they should learn they cannot save Ramadi, and the Americans cannot save Ramadi. Now they know that there is no force that can save Ramadi except for the Hashed."
Mr Ameri rose to become leader of the Badr Organisation, the leading militia in Hashed al-Sha'abi, after years in exile from Saddam Hussein-era Iraq, which he spent in Iran. He, along with the Badr, fought on the Iranian side in the Iran-Iraq war in the Eighties, and he remains close to Tehran and Qassem Soleimani, the head of the Revolutionary Guard's elite force the Al-Quds Brigade, whom he referred to as "Brother Qassem".
General Soleimani is a bogeyman to America, for his creation of the militias that fought the American and British presence in Iraq after the invasion of 2003, at a cost of hundreds of lives.
But many Shia Iraqis have come to see him and Iran as a more reliable weapon against Isil than the Western coalition.
Together, Mr Soleimani and Mr Ameri have devised a more successful counter-insurgency strategy than the American policy of supporting the institutionally weak army and loyal Sunni tribes with air power has proved.
Instead of attempting a swift assault on Ramadi, Mr Ameri's forces are working their way north-east of the city, dividing areas of the desert into blocks in order to isolate individual Isil units.
These blocks are then intended to become a buffer protecting Iraq's main road north and its towns and cities, including Samarra, seat of one of the Shia world's most important shrines, Tikrit, which was Saddam Hussein's birthplace, and Baiji, home to Iraq's biggest oil refinery and the site of a major battle.
He said the second priority of his strategy was to cut off the "Dejla Arm" - the road running west across the desert to the north of Baghdad and the other major Anbar city in Isil hands, Fallujah. The aim there is to protect the capital from attacks. Only once those two priorities have been met will he turn to the liberation of Anbar, though moving north to protect the main roads should also ultimately serve to cut off supply lines between Mosul and Ramadi and Fallujah.
In the desert west of Nebai, the area where he had set up his encampment, his men were pushing forward at a rate of 12 miles a day, they said, at the same time securing oil pipelines the jihadists had tapped into. Isil was retreating in the face of Hashed's numerical superiority, said Talib al-Attabi, a Badr commander.
Nearby lay the wrecks of oil tankers, some still burning, which the jihadists had abandoned the day before. Mr Attabi insisted local Sunnis were being treated with respect, even the wives and families of known Isil fighters.
Human rights groups have recorded numerous violations, and on Saturday night a video surfaced online purporting to show another notorious militia, hanging an Isil fighter, possibly already dead, over an open fire to "roast".
However, many anti-Isil Sunnis see no option now but to join forces with the Hashed, putting their own tribal militias under its umbrella. Mr Ameri's strategy runs the risk of looking as if he is effectively partitioning Anbar and other Isil-held territory off from the rest of Iraq.
He said he did not know when any attempt to retake Anbar would begin. Fighters are pouring in to defend those areas near Ramadi, like the Habbaniyah airbase and the towns of Khaldiya and Husseibeh.
Mr Ameri said his strategy with Isil was to encircle their positions to disrupt their operations. But that was not the same as a direct attack.
"This is not part of the plan to liberate Anbar - we can talk about that if we are successful here," he said. "We have to separate military work from political work."