BAGHDAD - Thousands of Shi'ite militiamen on Monday prepared to fight Islamic State insurgents who seized the Iraqi provincial capital Ramadi at the weekend in the biggest defeat for government forces in nearly a year.
A column of 3,000 Shi'ite militia fighters assembled at a military base near Ramadi, preparing to take on Islamic State militants advancing in armoured vehicles from the captured city northwest of Baghdad, witnesses and a military officer said.
The decision by Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, who is a Shi'ite, to send in the militias to try to retake the predominantly Sunni city could add to sectarian hostility in one of the most violent parts of Iraq.
Washington, which is leading a campaign of air strikes to roll back Islamic State advances and struggling to rebuild Baghdad's shattered army, played down the significance of the loss of Ramadi, the capital of the vast western Anbar province.
US Secretary of State John Kerry said it was a "target of opportunity," that could be retaken in a matter of days, and US officials insisted there would be no change in strategy despite a failure to make major advances against Islamic State.
Warplanes in the US-led coalition had conducted 19 strikes near Ramadi over the past 72 hours at the request of the Iraqi security forces, a coalition spokesman said.
The Shi'ite militia, known as Hashid Shaabi or Popular Mobilisation, "reached the Habbaniya base and are now on standby," said the head of the Anbar provincial council, Sabah Karhout.
MASSING FOR A FIGHT
An eyewitness described a long line of armoured vehicles and trucks mounted with machine guns and rockets, flying the yellow flags of Kataib Hezbollah, one of the militia factions, heading towards the base about 30 km (20 miles) from Ramadi.
The United Nations said 25,000 people fled the city after the Islamic State attack, heading east to Baghdad. Many were believed to be running from the black-clad fighters of the militia for the second time - about 130,000 left in April.
About 500 people were killed in the fighting for Ramadi in recent days.