US President Barack Obama is poised to quicken the pace of weapons supplies and training to Iraqi tribes, while eyeing a rapid offensive to recapture Ramadi from the Islamic State group.
Obama huddled Tuesday with his national security team at the White House to plot a way forward after the loss of a strategically vital town on the steps of the capital Baghdad.
Following the meeting — which included the heads of the CIA and Pentagon, National Security Council staff and Secretary of State John Kerry via secure phone link — officials indicated Obama was ready to ramp up assistance to Sunni tribes that dominate the province around Ramadi.
“We are looking at how best to support local ground forces in Anbar” National Security Council spokesman Alistair Baskey told AFP, “including accelerating the training and equipping of local tribes and supporting an Iraqi-led operation to retake Ramadi.”
Ramadi — just a 90-minute drive from Baghdad and a gateway to Syria, Jordan and Saudi Arabia — was overrun by militant jihadists on Sunday.
The audacious military victory was a major blow in the battle to degrade and ultimately defeat the Islamic State, calling into question Obama’s strategy and the authority of his ally, Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi.
The White House had earlier described the loss of Ramadi, despite a sustained US air campaign, as a “setback,” but played down suggestions that the war is being lost.
“Are we going to light our hair on fire every time that there is a setback in the campaign?” asked White House spokesman Josh Earnest.
– ‘No formal strategy review’ –
The United States has already agreed to send military advisors to train around 6,000 vetted Sunni tribesmen, who will be armed with assault rifles and other weapons.
It was not immediately clear if the increased pace of training would spell an increase in the number of US military advisors.
But the White House insisted that there was no major shift in policy.
“There is no formal strategy review,” said Baskey, indicating that the pace rather than type of assistance to Sunni tribes was in question.
A more detailed announcement could come as soon as Wednesday.
Obama has repeatedly ruled out sending vast numbers of US troops back to the theater of a bloody and unpopular nine-year war that he vowed to end.
Instead, he has promised to support Iraq’s struggling army and hit IS from the air.
There has also been support for disparate Iraqi armed groups that have sometimes proven a more potent fighting force than army or police regulars, though not without controversy.
In the north, Baghdad had been uneasy about arms flowing to Kurdish peshmerga fighters, fearing those arms could later be used in the battle for independence.
Meanwhile, many of the Shiite groups that helped retake Tikrit are armed and trained by Iran and their role in campaigns in overwhelmingly Sunni Anbar could risk reigniting a sectarian bloodbath.
Reeling from the worst setback since IS grabbed swathes of territory in June last year, Baghdad and Washington may have few other options.
But the White House wants to see those groups firmly under the command and control of the Iraqi military and is also turning to Sunni tribes, which helped turn the tide of America’s own war in Iraq through the “Sunni Awakening.”
Iraq’s army and allied paramilitary forces have already massed around Ramadi, looking for swift action to recapture the city from IS before it builds up defenses.
“The Iraqi government needs to launch an immediate counteroffensive before (IS) can consolidate its power, both for symbolic reasons and because of Ramadi’s proximity to Baghdad,” said Michael Knights of the Washington Institute.