The Obama administration Monday called the fall of the capital of Iraq’s Anbar province to the Islamic State a temporary setback that Iraqi forces would reverse with U.S. support. Experts dismissed that assessment as ludicrous.
“Delusional, really, is the better word,” Ali Khedery, a former U.S. official who served as an adviser to five U.S. ambassadors to Iraq and three heads of U.S. Central Command, said of the administration’s statement. “It’s unbelievable, frankly. I now know what it’s like to have lived through Vietnam, I guess.”
Experts called the loss a stunning blow to the Iraqi government and U.S. strategy.
It wasn’t clear why the administration clung to an upbeat message three days after the Islamic State overran most of Ramadi and a day after Iraq’s best special forces unit fled the city with other troops, local police and tribal fighters. The message was delivered in nearly identical verbiage by White House, State Department and Pentagon spokesmen and was reinforced by a statement from Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
“ISIL’s gains in Ramadi are a serious setback for its long-suffering inhabitants. It is also a setback for the ISF (Iraqi Security Forces),” said Dempsey. “Setbacks are regrettable but not uncommon in warfare. Much effort will now be required to reclaim the city. We will continue to support Iraq’s security forces with U.S. airstrikes, training and equipment.”
It wasn’t until Monday that the administration and U.S. military officials acknowledged the fall of Ramadi after several days of insisting that the situation in the city of 900,000 was fluid and contested and that the Islamic State was on the defensive in Iraq and neighboring Syria.
“This is something we’ve known was possible for some time,” said Army Col. Steve Warren, a Pentagon spokesman. “Ramadi has been surrounded for probably a year now.”
State Department spokesman Jeff Rathke faced a barrage of questions from reporters who tried to puncture his message, which boiled down to: Ramadi was contested for 18 months, the fight against the Islamic State will be long and difficult, but that the overall assessment of the efforts of a U.S.-led international coalition helping Iraq fight the group is “positive.”
When Rathke asserted that Iraqi security forces, with U.S.-led coalition support, “have the capacity and the will to retake Ramadi,” a reporter asked why U.S. officials hold that view. Rathke offered no specifics.
“There’s no denying that this is a setback but there’s also no denying that the United States will help the Iraqis take back Ramadi,” he said.
Despite what he also acknowledged was a setback, White House spokesman Eric Schultz said that the administration isn’t considering a change in the U.S. strategy of staging airstrikes against the Islamic State and training, arming and advising Iraqi security forces, but not deploying U.S. combat troops.
“ISIL will ultimately be defeated in Ramadi and elsewhere in Iraq because we believe the Iraqi forces have the capacity to ultimately take Ramadi with coalition support,” said Schultz, using the government’s preferred acronym for the Islamic State.
Experts who closely follow Iraq framed the situation in far bleaker terms.
Ramadi’s fall, they said, brings every major population center in Anbar, which is Iraq’s largest province and accounts for one-third of its territory, under Islamic State control and moved its fighters much closer to Baghdad’s western suburbs, where the extremists command sympathy among minority Sunni Muslims.
“The fact that al-Anbar is all but entirely controlled by the Islamic State puts neighboring Baghdad and Karbala province increasingly within its reach of attack,” said an analysis by Zaineb al-Assam of IHS Country Risk, a London-based risk assessment company.
Ramadi’s fall also underscored persisting weaknesses of the Iraqi army, which has long suffered from corruption, poor leadership and nepotism.
As a result, analysts said, Baghdad and Washington will have to focus on rebuilding sufficient Iraqi forces to clear Anbar, indefinitely postponing a planned offensive to retake Iraq’s second largest city, Mosul, which the Islamic State seized when it launched its land grab from sanctuaries in Syria last June, experts said.
“Mosul is completely off the radar screen now,” said Kirk H. Sowell, the editor of Inside Iraqi Politics, a newsletter that he publishes from Amman, Jordan. “The liberation of Mosul is out of the question.”
Moreover, even with U.S. airstrikes and reinforcements from Iran-backed Shiite militias that are being dispatched to Anbar, the heartland of the country’s minority Sunnis, it is unlikely that Iraqi security forces will be able to recapture Ramadi, let alone the rest of the province’s key towns and cities, anytime soon, experts said.
Michael Pregent, a Middle East analyst and former U.S. Army intelligence officer who served in Iraq, said that the Shiite militias’ abilities are overblown. Moreover, he said, their main priority now is protecting Baghdad and Shiite holy cities, not retaking Ramadi.
“Their focus isn’t Ramadi. It’s protecting Najaf, Karbala and Samarra,” he said.
Deploying the Shiite militias, which are accused of committing atrocities against Sunnis – though not on the same scale as the Islamic State’s atrocities against Shiites – also risks further inflaming sectarian tensions and driving more Sunnis to join the extremists, experts said.
Khedery, the former U.S. official, said it was time for a strategy makeover.
Obama should replace top Iraq policymakers with “a new set of egos that aren’t tied to policies that are failing.”
The current policymakers are too invested in the existing approaches to concede that they haven’t worked, he said, contending that the Islamic State threat has metastasized to a point where “you’re asking a surgeon to eradicate a brain cancer that he’s watched spread for six years.”
Meanwhile, an intelligence official who spoke on the condition of anonymity under the ground rules of his agency offered a caution: With the anniversary of the Islamic State’s declaration of a caliphate coming next month, “it would not be surprising if the group sought to mount a major attack or propaganda blitz to demonstrate its capabilities, and attract additional recruits.”
James Rosen and Anita Kumar in Washington contributed to this report.