By Julian E. Barnes
Wall Street Journal
April 16, 2015
Anbar residents flee provincial capital as Islamist forces advance
WASHINGTON—U.S. defense officials said a provincial capital in Iraq could soon fall to Islamic State, while America’s top military officer sought to minimize the strategic importance of the city.
At a Pentagon news conference, Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, suggested that maintaining control of Ramadi, the capital of Anbar province, isn’t central to the U.S. and Iraqi aims of defeating Islamic State forces.
“The city itself is not symbolic in any way,” Gen. Dempsey said. “It’s not been declared part of the caliphate on one hand, or central to the future of Iraq.”
Earlier this week, Pentagon officials minimized the possibility that Ramadi was going to fall. But U.S. officials have monitored large numbers of civilians fleeing from the city, a sign that residents fear an imminent takeover.
Islamic State fighters have taken over a number of villages surrounding Ramadi, destroyed bridges and other infrastructure and reversed recent gains by Iraqi Security forces, defense officials said Thursday.
The U.S. has been stepping up strikes around Ramadi, but those have been insufficient to blunt the advance of Islamic State fighters.
Officials compared the city with Kobani, a Syrian city that was on the brink of being taken over before Kurdish fighters, aided by U.S. airstrikes, retook it.
“It is getting worse,” said one U.S. military official. “Right now, Ramadi looks like Kobani before the Kurds starting pushing. It is teetering.”
Still, military officers backed Gen. Dempsey’s assessment, arguing that if Ramadi does fall it won’t expose a weakness in the current U.S. campaign of airstrikes but merely highlight how Iraqi forces must refocus their efforts in Anbar.
Iraqi forces are stepping up their campaign to drive Islamic State forces out of strongholds in Anbar, where the group has a threatening foothold northwest of Baghdad, the Iraqi capital.
Gen. Dempsey’s views could put the Pentagon at odds with Iraqi leaders who have launched a risky military campaign in Anbar. Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi is wrapping up his first official visit to Washington, where he made an appeal for more U.S. military and financial support.
On Thursday, Mr. Abadi said Islamic State’s fight for Ramadi was timed to his visit to Washington. He dismissed suggestions that the offensive was a sign that the militants had regrouped after being forced from the major city of Tikrit last month, with the help of U.S. airstrikes.
“This is a war, and in a war you can win in a place and lose somewhere else,” Mr. Abadi said in a talk at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “If you look at the Iraqi map, over the last six or seven months, the green areas, the areas controlled by the government, are increasing.”
If Ramadi were to fall to Islamic State fighters, Gen. Dempsey said, it wouldn’t be a significant strategic defeat for the U. S-Iraqi campaign.
“I would much rather Ramadi not fall but it won’t be the end of the campaign should it fall, we would have to get it back,” Gen. Dempsey said.
There has been intensified fighting around Ramadi in recent days, as Islamic State forces have seized control of villages on the city’s outskirts. The U.S. military has stepped up its airstrikes around Ramadi, but it has placed more attention on protecting the Beiji oil refinery north of Baghdad.
On Thursday, Islamic State released a 15-minute video that appeared to show its forces inside parts of the oil refinery. The footage showed militants seizing what appeared to be a U.S.-made Abrams tank and using an armored Humvee in a suicide attack.
“The best of American manufacturing is beneath the feet of the soldiers of the Islamic State,” read one caption on the video translated by the SITE Intelligence Group.
Iraqis have been fighting with Islamic State forces for months over the control of the oil refinery. Several times Iraqi forces have pushed out Islamic State fighters, only to have militants push back in.
“Beiji is a more strategic target, and that is why the focus is on Beiji,” Gen. Dempsey said. “The refinery itself is at no risk right now. We are focusing a lot of our [aerial surveillance] and air support there.”
Still Islamic State fighters control the town of Beiji, and Iraqi forces are unable to resupply the refinery by ground forces.
Gen. Dempsey said the attack on Ramadi shows the need for the Iraqi government to expand and link its pockets of control in the Sunni-dominated province.
“This latest attack on Ramadi is another indication what the government of Iraq needs to be is connect the inkblots of legitimate security forces so there isn’t this constant back and forth,” Gen. Dempsey said.
The U.S. has minimized the strategic importance of other cities in the past, only to step up its focus when Islamic State militants attacked.
U.S. officials repeatedly questioned the strategic importance of Kobani, only to make it the prime focus of American airstrikes as Islamic State militants sent hundreds of fighters to the area to try to take the city from Syrian Kurdish fighters.
Gen. Dempsey made his comments at the first formal Pentagon news conference held by Ash Carter, who took over as Secretary of Defense two months ago. Mr. Carter said the U.S. and Iraq were making progress in the campaign against Islamic State fighters, often referred to by the acronym ISIL.
“A lasting victory over ISIL requires inclusive governance in Baghdad and respect for local populations in all areas liberated from ISIL control,” Mr. Carter said.