Iraq’s security forces are reeling from last week’s ferocious Islamic State takeover of the capital of Iraq’s largest province and must regroup before even thinking of staging a counterattack, a senior State Department official said Wednesday in the Obama administration’s most sober assessment to date of the battle.
U.S. officials are still “trying to piece together exactly what happened” when Iraqi forces retreated from Ramadi in Anbar province during the Islamic State offensive, said the official, who could not be further identified under the conditions of the briefing he gave reporters. He said the focus now is to “just basically hold together” the Iraqi army’s units that retreated at Ramadi.
The Ramadi outcome underscored how difficult defeating the Islamic State will be, the official said, repeating the Obama administration’s warning that it will require years of effort.
For one thing, the official said, the Islamic State is an enemy like no other, with an estimated 22,000 fighters from 100 countries – twice as big as and far more diverse than the forces that flooded Afghanistan over a decade to battle the Soviet Union there.
The Islamic State is also “better in every respect” than its precursor, al Qaida in Iraq, the official said, noting that the Ramadi campaign involved around 30 suicide car bombers, including 10 that each packed explosive power akin to the bomb that devastated the federal building in Oklahoma City 20 years ago.
“Nobody is kidding themselves about what ISIL was able to pull off last week,” the official said, using the government’s preferred acronym for the Islamic State.
That grave assessment was at odds with the message U.S. officials were flogging only two days earlier, when spokesmen at the White House, the State Department and the Pentagon used the word “setback” to describe the Ramadi battle and insisted that the U.S.-led campaign was still moving in a “positive” direction.
The official said Wednesday that any hopes that an offensive would be mounted any time soon to retake Mosul, the Iraqi city the Islamic State captured last June, were off the table.
“You’ve got to do Anbar to isolate Mosul, and that means Baghdad to Ramadi, and Ramadi to Haditha,” the official said, underscoring the vast amount of western Iraq terrain to wrest from the Islamic State.
The official described the Islamic State push to capture Ramadi as sophisticated and relentless. He said the Islamic State first sent in an armored bulldozer to knock down massive concrete security barriers that were protecting the city’s government center, then followed it with an armored dump truck and an armored Humvee loaded with explosives. The blasts devastated Iraqi army positions.
The militants followed that with more vehicle bombs, apparently aware that the Iraqi security forces had no weapons that could stop the armored trucks and Humvees before they reached their targets.
“They took out entire city blocks, and the death toll of Iraqi security forces is not entirely clear, but they lost some leaders and it was just a really psychological impact,” the official said.
Additional forces the Iraqis sent in on Sunday came under fire and fled.
Now, the State Department official said, “we’ve been working to consolidate the Iraqi units that retreated from Ramadi.” The immediate goal, the official said, is to prevent Iraqi forces from collapsing in a domino effect like what happened after last year’s Islamic State capture of Mosul, which turned into a rout across northern and central Iraq as Iraqi army units simply disappeared.
He said the situation remains extremely serious, but “it’s not the Mosul collapse and disintegration.”
“They’re now in the process of refueling, refitting, licking their wounds a bit, and consolidating,” he said.
How quickly the Iraqis will be in a position to try to retake Ramadi remains to be seen. The United States by next month is sending Iraq 1,000 anti-tank rocket systems to help counter the vehicle-borne bombs.
Once the Iraqi forces regain their footing, the next step would be to plan a counterattack, which brings a host of other complex challenges: pairing the remaining Iraqi government forces with independent Shiite Muslim paramilitary reinforcements, handling the sectarian powder keg of a Shiite force attacking a Sunni area, figuring out how to provide U.S. air cover for a force that includes militias under Iranian command, and drawing more Sunni fighters to the government’s side.
And, apart from all those complexities, yet another Islamic State-created refugee crisis is unfolding, with thousands of terrified Anbar families caught between the jihadists and a central government that won’t admit them to Baghdad without a sponsor.
All of those issues, the official said, are things “we’ve got to work through.”
Sunni tribes that are willing to fight the Islamic State have complained that the government of Prime Minister Haider al Abadi hasn’t given them promised weapons; U.S. officials are leaning on Baghdad to reach out more to Sunnis.
Abadi has plans, the official said, to build a national guard-style force for Sunni areas and to recall some 24,000 Anbar police officers who’ve abandoned their posts. But there was nothing in the official’s remarks to suggest that major Sunni buy-in for the campaign was around the corner.
The State Department official added that U.S. special forces are working closely with three Sunni tribes at a base in Haditha, in the far west of Anbar, advising and directly coordinating their operations, but that no similar program exists in eastern Anbar. And even the partnership in Haditha, he said, is “not perfect,” with the Islamic State striking back to cement its control over the Sunni heartland of Iraq.
“It’s like the Wild West,” the official said of Anbar province. “I mean really tough.”