The Islamic State (IS) group’s takeover of the Iraqi provincial capital Ramadi has prompted criticism from US Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter and raised new questions about the administration of US President Barack Obama’s strategy to defeat the extremist group.
The Islamic State group, which had already seized a strategically important swath of the Middle East, seized Ramadi in central Iraq a week ago, which has revived concerns about US efforts to fight the group.
The Obama administration’s approach in Iraq is a blend of retraining and rebuilding the Iraqi army, prodding the Shiite-dominated government in Baghdad to reconcile with the nation’s Sunnis and bombing Islamic State group targets from the air without committing US ground combat troops.
Obama’s strategy is predicated on Baghdad granting political concessions to the country’s alienated Sunnis, who are a source of personnel and money for the Islamic State group, formerly known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.
However, there has been little visible progress on that front. Baghdad has continued to work closely with Shiite militias backed by Iran, which have been accused of atrocities against Sunnis, a religious minority in Iraq that ruled the country until Saddam Hussein fell from power.
The US has sought to reach out on its own to Sunni tribes and is training some Sunni fighters, but those efforts have been limited by the small number of US troops on the ground.
Carter said in an interview aired on Sunday that Shiite-led Iraqi forces did not show a “will to fight” in the battle for Ramadi, a Sunni city.
Although Iraqi soldiers “vastly outnumbered” their opposition in the capital of the al-Anbar Governorate, they quickly withdrew a week ago without putting up much resistance from the city in Iraq’s Sunni heartland, Carter said on CNN’s State of the Union.
The Iraqis left behind large numbers of US-supplied vehicles, including several tanks.
“What apparently happened is the Iraqi forces just showed no will to fight,” Carter said. “They were not outnumbered; in fact, they vastly outnumbered the opposing force. That says to me, and I think to most of us, that we have an issue with the will of the Iraqis to fight ISIL and defend themselves.”
The White House declined to comment on Sunday.
Iraqi lawmaker Hakim al-Zamili, the head of the parliamentary defense and security committee, called Carter’s comments “unrealistic and baseless,” in an interview.
“The Iraqi army and police did have the will to fight IS group in Ramadi, but these forces lack good equipment, weapons and aerial support,” said al-Zamili, a member of the political party headed by radical Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who is stridently anti-US.
US officials say they are sending anti-tank weapons to the Iraqi military. However, they also noted that Iraqi forces were not routed from Ramadi — they left of their own accord, frightened in part by a powerful wave of Islamic State group suicide truck bombs, some the size of the one that destroyed the federal building in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, two decades ago, said a senior US Department of State official, who spoke to reporters last week under ground rules he not be named.
A senior defense official said that the troops who fled Ramadi had not been trained by the US or its coalition partners. The official was not authorized to address the matter publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity.
Carter defended the use of US airstrikes, but he said they are not a replacement for Iraqi ground forces willing to defend their country.
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