Washington conceded Wednesday it is taking a “hard look” at its Iraq strategy after the fall of Ramadi, sending in anti-tank weapons to battle car bombs and working to shore up dispirited Iraqi forces.
After days of denying that the weekend capture of the Iraqi town by the Islamic State (IS) group was forcing a policy rethink, a top US official said since Sunday’s “significant setback” the US had been focused solely on winning back Ramadi.
“You’d have to be delusional not to take something like this and say ‘what went wrong, how do you fix it and how do we correct course to go from here?’,” the official told a few foreign policy reporters.
“And that’s exactly what we’re doing. Taking an extremely hard look at it.”
The Islamic State group’s seizure of Ramadi, the first major city to fall to IS since the US and its coalition partners launched air strikes last August, was a painful blow to the US-led war against the jihadists.
It raised fresh doubts about Washington’s war strategy, with analysts lining up to dub the town’s capture a major setback.
– Ripple effect –
“We don’t really have a strategy at all. We’re basically playing this day by day,” former defense secretary Robert Gates told MSNBC on Tuesday.
“Right now, it looks like they’re (Iraq) going the way of Yugoslavia,” he added.
Writing in the online Foreign Policy magazine, Middle East expert Hassan Hassan warned the fall of the city “marks a dangerous new phase of the war” saying it would have a “ripple effect across both the Syrian and Iraqi battlefields.”
The IS group poses “a formidable and enormous threat,” the State Department official agreed, adding already the jihadists were trying to use Ramadi’s capture for propaganda purposes.
But he vowed: “In terms of taking back Ramadi, we’re going to help the Iraqis do it as soon as possible.”
He declined to give a specific time frame, but pledged there was 24-hour coalition air support over the town with a wave of fresh air strikes carried out Wednesday.
“When we see them in the streets of Ramadi, we’re going to kill them in Ramadi.”
IS has captured a swathe of territory in Iraq and Syria since early last year in its bid to set up an Islamic caliphate, and “sees this war as a war of expanding flags” he said, referring to the black flags the groups erects over captured territory.
– Gigantic blasts –
Asking not to be identified, the official said one of the most dangerous IS tactics was using huge “vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices” (VBIEDs) to plow into buildings and walls.
In Ramadi, a bulldozer packed with explosives was used to blow up the security perimeter around a central compound still held by government forces.
A total of 30 vehicles such as Humvees then flowed in, 10 of which were each carrying enough bomb-making materials to carry out explosions the size of the blast of the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing.
There were “gigantic explosions that took out entire city blocks,” the official said.
“These enormous suicide VBIEDs is something that we have to help the Iraqis, and our partners in Syria, defeat.”
During his key visit last month, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi asked the US administration for weapons systems to help counter the deadly car bombings.
“We made the decision immediately while he was here to get 1,000 AT4 anti-tank systems to Iraqi security forces and those are going to be arriving fairly soon,” the senior State Department official told reporters.
The US administration has also already streamlined the process for delivering weapons to the forces on the ground, putting in place a system a few weeks ago with “an approved list” for small weapons with some provincial governors like in Anbar given authority to procure arms on their own without going through Baghdad.