Speaking in a special briefing, a top US official said on Wednesday that the administration was taking a “hard look” at its Iraq strategy after the fall of Ramadi to ISIS.
“Nobody here from the President on down is saying this is something we’ll just overcome immediately. It’s an extremely serious situation, and … [the Iraqis] are seeing it the same way,” the senior State Department official said.
Noting that Iraqi forces in Ramadi had been fighting against ISIS for 18 months, the official pointed out that “it is not the Mosul collapse and disintegration of units.”
The official said the units that retreated have moved to three undisclosed locations “to consolidate, to refit, to regroup, to re-equip.”
Ramadi, the capital of the predominantly Sunni Anbar province, fell to ISIS militants on May 17 as hundreds of police personnel, soldiers and tribal fighters abandoned the city, prompting the Iraqi prime minister to order Iranian-aligned Shiite militias to join the fight to win back control.
Currently on standby in Habbaniya 20km from Ramadi the Hashd al-Shaabi, also known as the Popular Mobilization Forces, had previously been kept out of Anbar to avoid alienating the majority Sunni population of the province.
There is a fear that an assault by a Shiite majority force on a Sunni-dominated city may lead to ethnic violence and further exacerbate tensions.
“From the US point of view, we are prepared to support whether they are Sunni tribesmen, Iraqi security forces, Shia forces, Kurdish forces - provided they are all operating under the command and control of the Iraqi government in Baghdad,” White House national security adviser Susan Rice told USA Today.
Speaking on National Public Radio’s All Things Considered, the Washington Post reporter David Ignatius called the US idea of “bringing Iraqi Sunnis into the fight to defend and liberate Sunni areas that were captured by ISIS, a Sunni Muslim terrorist group” a failure and pointed out “[the Sunni fighters that the US has been asking for for a year] are nowhere in sight.”
Ignatius also criticised the way the US handled the war, asserting that there needs to be “one person in charge” who would be based in the White House and brief the President daily, rather than strategy and military be handled by different divisions (namely, the State Department and CentCom).
Echoing the sentiments put forward by Ignatius, former US Defense Secretary Robert Gates told MSNBC on Tuesday: “We don’t really have a strategy at all. We’re basically playing this day by day.”
He was not optimistic about the way things were going. “Right now, it looks like [Iraq is] going the way of Yugoslavia,” he added.
Conceding that ISIS is “a formidable, enormous threat,” the senior State Department official who asked not to be named said the US would help Iraqis take back Ramadi and predicted the fight with ISIS “will be a very long, multi year campaign.”
However, according to Rice, the support will be limited to targeting ISIS from the air and keeping 3,000 US troops at several secure bases, in line with the existing plan.
“We are not going to own this battle as Americans and put combat forces back on the ground again,” Rice said. “That is not what we are about.”
The top State Department official reminded the press that “[ISIS] as an organization is better in every respect than its predecessor of Al Qaida Iraq (AQI)” and advised them to look at things with a long-term perspective.
“We know what it took for us, the best military in the world, to get a handle on AQI, so I think that also puts things in a little bit of context,” the official said.
However, at the moment the coalition forces along with the Iraqi administration are intent on “consolidating the lines, holding the lines, organising, and thinking about how to begin a counterattack, and that’s what we’ve been focused on over the last 96 hours,” the official said.