WASHINGTON — On the heels of reports that Islamic State militants have taken the center of a key Iraqi city, the chief of staff for allied operations in the country insisted the group is “on the defensive.”
“We believe across Iraq and Syria that Daesh is losing,” Marine Brig. Gen. Thomas Weidley said at a Pentagon briefing Friday, using one of several shorthands for the extremist group that now controls roughly one-third of Iraq.
Despite the claim, Iraqi officials report that Islamic State fighters have taken over the main government compound in Ramadi, the capital of Anbar province and scene of many bloody clashes between U.S. forces and insurgents during the last war in Iraq. The Reuters news agency quoted Ramadi police Maj. Omar Khamis al-Dahl as saying “the city’s fallen” although Iraqi forces were reportedly holding out in parts of town.
In addition the militants now control part of the Beiji oil field and surrounding areas, key not only for its oil but also for a road that leads to Mosul, a city of 2 million people that Islamic State still controls.
Weidley, chief of staff of Combined Joint Task Force Operation Inherent Resolve, acknowledged that there had been a “complex attack” in Ramadi and that militants appeared to control parts of the city, but he said the Iraqi government was still in control of crucial infrastructure. He said coalition forces have conducted “12 engagements” in the past three days in the city. He described the battle for Beiji as a “stalemate.”
Asked to explain why the U.S. military believes the Islamic State is on the defensive, Weidley pointed to fighters being less willing to operate in the open and operate in large formations as they did before U.S. and allied airstrikes. He described fighters digging trenches and building berms in Mosul in anticipation of defense of the city.
“Their ability to maneuver is very limited at this point,” he said.
As for the possibility of U.S. troops moving closer to the front lines, Weidley said no change is imminent but “we continue to look into other options.”
“Our current strategy is working,” he said. “The authorities we are provided are allowing us to achieve success with the current disposition of our forces.”
The Islamic State, which was born out of the chaos following the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, has long been active in the Syrian civil war and in June 2014 stormed across the border, easily taking territory in Iraq and even threatening the capital, Baghdad, as the country’s American-trained army crumbled. Their advance pushed America and allied nations to provide air support to and retrain an Iraqi military that the U.S. spent more than $25 billion to train during its 8-year Operation Iraqi Freedom mission.
Despite the recent setbacks, though, Weidley said the Iraqis and allies are making progress.
“The coalition strategy is clear and our campaign is on track and we believe that both of these will take time,” he said.