The Cable

Pentagon: Islamic State On The Defensive, Just Not in Ramadi

As many as 500 Iraqis have been executed in the latest Islamic State onslaught, as the extremists have overtaken the capital of the nation’s western Anbar region. But “to read too much into this single fight is simply a mistake,” a Pentagon spokesman said Monday. The Islamic State chased Iraqi security forces from the city ...

Displaced Sunni Iraqis, who fled the violence in the Iraqi city of Ramadi, arrive at the outskirts of Baghdad, on April 19, 2015. More than 90,000 people have fled fighting between pro-government forces and the Islamic State jihadist group in the Ramadi area of Iraq's Anbar province, the United Nations said. AFP PHOTO/AHMAD AL-RUBAYE        (Photo credit should read AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP/Getty Images)
Displaced Sunni Iraqis, who fled the violence in the Iraqi city of Ramadi, arrive at the outskirts of Baghdad, on April 19, 2015. More than 90,000 people have fled fighting between pro-government forces and the Islamic State jihadist group in the Ramadi area of Iraq's Anbar province, the United Nations said. AFP PHOTO/AHMAD AL-RUBAYE (Photo credit should read AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP/Getty Images)

As many as 500 Iraqis have been executed in the latest Islamic State onslaught, as the extremists have overtaken the capital of the nation’s western Anbar region. But “to read too much into this single fight is simply a mistake,” a Pentagon spokesman said Monday.

The Islamic State chased Iraqi security forces from the city of Ramadi, about 70 miles northwest of Baghdad, just days after the No. 2 U.S. officer in Iraq declared the extremists were “on the defensive.” Last week, Marine Brig. Gen. Thomas Weidley told reporters that the Islamic State was unable to congregate in large groups or conduct large coordinated attacks thanks in part to the American-led air campaign there.

But whatever might they mustered was enough to push thousands of troops with the Iraqi Army’s 8th Division from Ramadi — a potentially lethal blow to Baghdad’s ability to prove it can hold its ground and protect its citizens.

The loss of Ramadi, despite the robust presence of the Iraqi Army and local police who have been supported by over 170 U.S. airstrikes over the past month, increases pressure on Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi to demonstrate his ability to lead the country through the protracted crisis.

And so on Monday, it was the Pentagon that was on the defensive. Defense Department spokesman Col. Steve Warren conceded the Islamic State “is obviously not on the defensive in Ramadi.” But he said Iraqi forces are pressuring the extremists in other parts of the country, and with international support “now have to go back and retake Ramadi.”

In addition to the U.S. air strikes, there are 3,000 U.S. troops on the ground training and advising the Iraqi army. The U.S. Central Command (Centcom) says that 7,000 Iraqi soldiers have gone through the weeks-long training program already with another 4,000 still in the pipeline.

In a sign of how seriously Iraq’s allies take the threat, Centcom commander Gen. Lloyd Austin met with Iraqi officials in Baghdad last weekend, as did Iranian Defense Minister Hossein Dehghan.

Speaking with reporters aboard Air Force One on Monday while traveling with President Barack Obama, deputy White House spokesman Eric Schultz said that “there’s no denying that this is indeed a setback. But there’s also no denying that we will help the Iraqis take back Ramadi.”

Ramadi, with a population of about a half-million Sunnis who helped turn the tide against al-Qaeda during the Iraq war, is a critically important piece of real estate for Baghdad. Its loss, along with the ongoing battle for the oil refinery at Baiji, gives the Islamic State far more control over key areas of the country, said Jessica Lewis McFate, research director at the Institute for the Study of War.

The extremist group’s ability to stand its ground in both Ramadi and Baiji “is a sign of its enduring operational strength despite losses and setbacks over the last few months,” McFate told FP.

It’s also likely the Islamic State will attempt to retake the northern city of Tikrit — Saddam Hussein’s hometown — as it marks its first year of widespread chaos and violence as a self-proclaimed caliphate, said Zaineb al-Assam, senior analyst at IHS Country Risk. The extremist group declared its rule last June 29.

Assam also predicted Baghdad will ramp up security in Shiite-dominated cities like Karbala, the site of two holy shrines, where a major attack would all but certainly push the country into unbridled civil war. Sectarian tensions in Iraq are steady but so far calm, and Sunni leaders in Anbar have pleaded with Abadi to send thousands of heavily-armed Shiite militias, some with Iran’s support, to help reclaim Ramadi.

As long as those militias are under Abadi’s control, Warren said, the U.S. will continue to launch airstrikes around Anbar’s capital. But with Ramadi firmly in the Islamic State’s grasp, Abadi clearly has some control issues.

“The loss of Ramadi further confirms the popular domestic perception of Abadi as ineffective and weak — and makes him less able to achieve a balance between meeting the interests of the U.S. and Iran in return for their military support,” Assam said.
Photo Credit: AHMAD AL-RUBAYE AFP/Getty Images

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