After days of insisting against all evidence that the key Iraqi city of Ramadi was not under Islamic State control, American military officials finally acknowledged Monday that the city had fallen to the militants.
But senior officials at the Pentagon and the State Department still contended that Iraqi security forces backed by U.S.-led air power would take back Ramadi and, more broadly, that the United States’ anti-Islamic State strategy in Iraq is working.
Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, the outgoing chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, using the Pentagon’s preferred acronym for the Islamic State, used the word “setback” to describe what had taken place. “ISIL’s gains in Ramadi are a setback for its long-suffering inhabitants,” he said in a statement emailed to reporters. “It is also a setback for the Iraqi security forces. Setbacks are regrettable but not uncommon in warfare.”
Earlier in the day, Army Col. Steve Warren, a Pentagon spokesman, found the silver lining: “I think it’s notable that it took ISIL a year to get this far in Ramadi.”
And Warren remained optimistic about the eventual outcome. “What this means is that we will now have to, along with our Iraqi partners, retake Ramadi,” he said.
Dempsey offered a more sober assessment. “Much effort will now be required to reclaim the city,” he said in his statement.
On Sunday, even as elite Iraqi forces fled Ramadi, abandoning U.S.-supplied weapons to the militant invaders, Warren had described the battle status as “fluid and contested” and insisted that it was “too early to make definitive statements about the situation on the ground.”
On Friday, as residents reported that Islamic State fighters had seized the main government complex in Ramadi and hoisted their flag above it, Marine Corps Brig. Gen. Thomas Weidley, chief of staff of the anti-Islamic State campaign, called the militants’ gains “temporary” and said that Iraqi security forces “continue to control most of the key facilities, infrastructure and lines of communication in the area.”
Within 48 hours, that assessment no longer held, if in fact it had ever been accurate.
The shifting statements showed the difficulties U.S. civilian and military leaders confront as they try to maintain a consistent overall narrative about eventual success in Iraq in the face of clear gains by Islamic State fighters who first swept into Iraq from Syria last summer.
After the Islamic State captured Mosul, a city of 1.3 million people 250 miles north of Baghdad, last June, U.S. and Iraqi officials vowed to recapture it. A Central Command officer even told Pentagon reporters in February that that offensive could come as soon as April. It never materialized, however, and with the fall of Ramadi any hopes it would come by October seem likely shattered.
Iraqi security forces, some of them trained by U.S. special forces, did recapture Tikrit, a city of 390,000 residents 85 miles northwest of Baghdad, in March, nine months after the Islamic State had seized it on the group’s initial march across Iraq.
But the Islamic State quickly responded, launching probes at Ramadi and then carrying out an offensive at Baiji that trapped an estimated 200 defenders at the oil refinery there, Iraq’s largest such facility.
The facility had produced 40 percent of Iraq’s gasoline supply before it was shut by fighting in the area. Still, U.S. military spokesmen couldn’t decide on their view of its strategic value. In remarks April 16, Dempsey ranked it above Ramadi in value . Warren on May 6, however, disagreed, saying Baiji was not strategically significant, only to be corrected by Dempsey the next day.
The confusion from military spokesmen has touched other issues. The United States has refused to acknowledge dozens of civilian deaths reported by local witnesses and monitoring groups as a result of more than 3,000 airstrikes conducted in Syria and Iraq since last summer.
With no U.S. military spotters on the ground in either country, the Pentagon has insisted that it uses precision-guided bombs and takes great precautions to avoid civilian casualties.
The Pentagon also came under criticism from defense analysts last month when it released maps purporting to show territory held and lost by the Islamic State in Iraq.
The analysts challenged the Pentagon’s claim that the militants could no longer operate freely in up to 30 percent of Iraqi-populated territory that it had previously controlled. The experts said the maps were misleading because they showed Islamic State-lost territory but left off areas lost to the jihadists by Iraqi security forces.
Citing operational security needs, the Pentagon also has declined to provide detailed information about the location and timing of the U.S.-led airstrikes.
Last week, Pentagon reporters and analysts met with skepticism Weidley’s assertion that the Islamic State was “on the defensive through Iraq and Syria, attempting to hold previous gains while conducting small-scale, localized, harassing attacks, occasional complex or high-profile attacks, in order to feed their information and propaganda apparatus.”
By Monday, Warren conceded: “ISIL obviously is not on the defensive in Ramadi. That’s fairly clear.”