Fresh doubts about US-led war strategy on IS group

Iraq's military strength questioned

WASHINGTON - The Islamic State group's seizure of Ramadi represents a painful blow to the US-led war against the jihadists, raising fresh doubts about Washington's war strategy and the military strength of its partners in Iraq.
The defeat of Iraqi security forces in the capital of Anbar province came despite more than 160 air strikes by US and coalition warplanes over the past month, and after an elaborate effort starting last year to arm and train Baghdad government troops and Sunni tribesmen.
The fall of the western city undercut a mostly upbeat portrayal of the war effort promoted by President Barack Obama's administration, as commanders had insisted the IS group was losing ground and losing momentum on the battlefield.
"The fall of Ramadi is a major setback for the Iraqi government and for the Obama Administration," said Jim Phillips of the Heritage Foundation think tank.
And with Iraqi leaders now turning to Shiite militias to help seize back the area, Washington had cause to be concerned about the Sunni community's trust in Baghdad and Iran's influence in the conflict, experts said.
"The fact that the Baghdad government now is considering moving Shiite militias to Ramadi suggests that Iraq's central government still lacks adequate support from Sunni Arabs to defeat the Islamic State," Phillips said.
Ramadi is the first major city to fall into IS hands since the United States and its allies launched air strikes in Iraq last August.
US officials had always described the bombing raids as a way to stem the advance of the IS and to buy time for the training of the Iraqi army.
But American officers had hoped that the Iraqi forces, along with Sunni paramilitary units, could push back the IS extremists without having to rely on a large number of Shiite militia fighters -- some of whom have close ties to neighboring Iran.
- Not enough reinforcements -
The Iraqi troops trying to defend Ramadi had been battling the IS militants for nearly a year and a half without sufficient reinforcements and help from Baghdad, said Michael Knights, a fellow at the Washington Institute think tank.
"If you leave a unit in an area and don't reinforce it, you don't give them the sense they matter, then eventually if they're hit hard enough, they're going to crack," Knights told AFP.
The Iraqi and US government's efforts at arming and training Iraqi army and Sunni tribesmen "moved very slowly," he said.
"Sixteen months of underinsuring Ramadi, eventually allowed ISIS to land a knock out blow," said Knights, using an alternative acronym for the group.
The US military acknowledged that the fall of Ramadi was "a setback" but vowed the city would eventually be seized back.
"We've said all along that there are going to be ebbs and flows. This is a difficult, complex, bloody fight," Pentagon spokesman Colonel Steven Warren said.
"And there's going to be victories and setbacks. And this is a setback."
But Warren added: "We will retake Ramadi," he said.
Some experts predicted it was only a matter of time before the Iraqi army and militia fighters in Popular Mobilisation Units succeed in rolling back the IS in Ramadi.
"They will grind their way back to the majority of the city I would think fairly quickly, like within weeks," Knights said. "This isn't a distant place where there's no forces available to attack it."
Senator Lindsey Graham, a hawk who has blasted Obama's approach to the war as timid, said the defeat in Ramadi underscored the need to deploy more US troops to assist the Iraqis.
"We need more trainers, more advisers, more Iraqi security force units that can degrade and destroy ISIL inside of Iraq. We don't have enough military presence to change the tide...," Graham said.
But other lawmakers, including Democrat Adam Schiff, said the answer was not sending in US troops or deploying Shiite militias.
Schiff said "all efforts must be made to step up the pace of arming Sunni tribes willing to fight ISIS and reclaim their towns, and to integrate such forces within the Iraqi military."
Ellen Laipson, president of the Stimson Center and a former senior intelligence official, said ultimately it was up to the Iraqi government to prevail on the battlefield.
"They have to be able to create enough esprit de corps and morale within the Iraqi national forces to be able to defend their territory on the ground," she said. "We cannot defend it ourselves."