Iraq Regroups for Ramadi Fight as Carter Criticism Reverberates

(Bloomberg) -- White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest speaks about the Iraqi military's failure to prevent the city of Ramadi from being captured by Islamic State. Earnest, speaking at a White House news briefing, also comments on flooding in Houston and legislation on NSA surveillance. (Source: Bloomberg)

Iraq’s government began maneuvering to recapture the city of Ramadi from Islamic State, the Pentagon said, days after a top U.S. official questioned the Iraqi military’s will to fight.

“What you’re seeing now is the beginning of shaping operations” that include securing lines of communications and terrain needed before a full offensive begins, Army Colonel Steve Warren told reporters Tuesday.

White House officials sought to clarify remarks by Defense Secretary Ashton Carter, who questioned the Iraqi military’s capability at the same time the Obama administration is pursuing a strategy that relies on the Iraqi government to handle the fight against the extremist group on the ground.

The fall of Ramadi, about 70 miles west of Baghdad, is one of Islamic State’s most notable victories since sweeping across northern Iraq a year ago. Iraqi troops abandoned the city, in the face of the Islamic State assault.

Carter told CNN on Sunday that Iraqi forces in Ramadi had “no will to fight” despite outnumbering the militants.

Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar Al-Abadi took exception to Carter’s remarks, telling the BBC that “I am confident he was provided incorrect information.” He said local Iraqi forces “decided to withdraw without permission” from the central government after a wave of suicide bombings by the militants.

The Obama administration moved quickly to smooth over a conflict with the Abadi government. On Monday, Vice President Joe Biden called Abadi to praise the efforts of the Iraqi military. Warren said today that Carter intended only to describe the mindset of forces in Ramadi, not that of the overall Iraqi army.

Damage Control

“The secretary was speaking about Ramadi,” Warren told reporters Tuesday. “Their morale had slipped. Their leadership was not up to par.”

White House press secretary Josh Earnest said the Iraqi forces in Ramadi didn’t have the benefit of U.S. training and there was a breakdown in tactics and planning.

“What Secretary Carter said is consistent with the analysis he’s received from those who are on the ground and are looking on the situation,” Earnest said. “We have seen a number of situations, and this is something Secretary Carter also said, where Iraqi forces have performed well.”

Obama Strategy

The criticism and subsequent damage control has underscored the inherent difficulties of President Barack Obama’s strategy for combating Islamic State. He wants regional allies to combat the militants on the ground, with the backing of U.S. training, equipment and air strikes.

The president and his aides have repeatedly said the U.S. won’t commit ground forces to the fight.

‘This is not something the U.S. government is going to do for the Iraqi people,’’ Earnest said.

Warren said the U.S. has trained 7,000 Iraqi soldiers so far, and thousands more will be trained over time. None of the U.S.-trained troops fought in Ramadi, he said.

Iraqi forces in Ramadi “did not feel they had the resources they wanted. They did not feel they were in a position to win,” he said.

The U.S. has about 3,000 troops in the region, with the majority supporting Iraqi security forces through advising and training programs, according to U.S. Central Command.

U.S. Training

Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus offered a conditional endorsement of Iraqi forces during an interview Tuesday with MSNBC, saying that “if they can be trained, the Marines and SEALs will train them.”

“We can help in terms of training,” he added. “But eventually, the fight has to be on the ground with the Iraqis.”

Obama acknowledged that the fall of Ramadi was a “tactical setback” in an interview with The Atlantic published last week. Days after the Iraqi city fell, Islamic State fighters captured the Syrian city of Palmyra.

Domestic politics have complicated his strategy. Congress hasn’t acted on Obama’s request for an official authorization to use military force against Islamic State.