WASHINGTON — The Islamic State group’s takeover of the Iraqi provincial capital Ramadi has prompted criticism from Defense Secretary Ash Carter and raised new questions about the Obama administration’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 U.S. 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 American ground combat troops.
President Barack 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. But 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 until Saddam Hussein fell from power.
The U.S. 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 American troops on the ground.
Carter said in an interview aired 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 Anbar province, 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 U.S.-supplied vehicles, including several tanks, now presumed to be in Islamic State hands.
“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.
A spokesman for the Iraqi government said Monday that Carter’s remarks were surprising and that the U.S. defense chief had been given “incorrect information.” In a statement, Saad al-Hadithi said the fall of Ramadi was due to mismanagement and poor planning by some senior military commanders in charge of Ramadi.
Iraqi lawmaker Hakim al-Zamili, the head of the parliamentary defense and security committee, called Carter’s comments “unrealistic and baseless,” in an interview Sunday with The Associated Press.
“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-American.
American officials say they are sending anti-tank weapons to the Iraqi military. But 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 two decades ago, said a senior State Department 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 U.S. 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 U.S. airstrikes, but he said they are not a replacement for Iraqi ground forces willing to defend their country.
American intelligence officials have assessed for some time that Iraq is unlikely ever again to function as the multi-ethnic nation-state it once was, and that any future political arrangement would have to grant significant local autonomy to the three main groups— Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds. But the Obama administration has continued to pursue a “one Iraq” policy, routing all assistance through Baghdad.
Over the past year defeated Iraq security forces have repeatedly left U.S.-supplied military equipment on the battlefield, which the U.S. has targeted in subsequent airstrikes against Islamic State forces. The Pentagon this past week estimated that when Iraqi troops abandoned Ramadi, they left behind a half-dozen tanks, a similar number of artillery pieces, a larger number of armored personnel carriers and about 100 wheeled vehicles like Humvees.
Politicians from both parties criticized the administration’s strategy Sunday and urged a more aggressive posture.
Republican Sen. John McCain, who chairs the Armed Services Committee, called for thousands of U.S. troops on the ground in Iraq, including spotters who can better direct air strikes.
Even Obama administration allies were urging the president to do more.
“I think there is a major hesitation to get too deeply involved in Iraq again,” said Michele Flournoy, a former senior Obama administration defense official. But, she said, “this is a terrorist problem that affects us and we have to take a more forward-leaning posture.”
Flournoy spoke on CNN’s “State of the Union”; McCain appeared on CBS’ “Face the Nation.”
Associated Press writers Sameer Yacoub in Baghdad and Julie Pace in Washington contributed to this report.