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US Promises Progress against ISIS as Iraq Prepares Counter Attack

Displaced Iraqis from Ramadi rest before crossing the Bzebiz bridge after spending the night walking towards Baghdad, as they flee their hometown, 65 km west of Baghdad, Iraq, Saturday, May 16, 2015. (AP Photo/ Hadi Mizban)
Displaced Iraqis from Ramadi rest before crossing the Bzebiz bridge after spending the night walking towards Baghdad, as they flee their hometown, 65 km west of Baghdad, Iraq, Saturday, May 16, 2015. (AP Photo/ Hadi Mizban)

The fall of Ramadi overlooked the "bigger picture" in Iraq that showed military gains in other areas and ISIS fighters on the defensive, a U.S. Central Command official said.

While acknowledging the major setback in Ramadi, "We are confident that the Iraqis with coalition support will recover Ramadi" although there was no timeline for a counterattack to begin, said Air Force Col. Pat Ryder, the chief CentCom spokesman.

In an audio briefing Wednesday from CentCom headquarters, Ryder urged reporters to "look at the bigger picture here. It's certainly not an ideal situation to have lost Ramadi," he said. However, the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) have made gains around Tikrit and other areas while the Kurdish Peshmerga forces have been on the offensive in the north.

The Peshmerga recently pushed into northeastern Syria and now "really present a hostile force in ISIL's backyard," Ryder said, using another term for the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

Ryder said that ISF has signaled its "intent to take back Ramadi in the near term" and that the U.S. and coalition partners would support them "when they're ready to go." Ryder could not say when the counter-attack would begin or what the makeup of the force would be. "Ultimately, that will be an Iraqi decision," Ryder said.

When the ISF abandoned Ramadi last weekend and left their equipment behind, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi reluctantly called on Shiite militias to join in a counter-offensive in mostly Sunni Anbar province to retake Ramadi. Thousands of the militia members reportedly are now massing in the airbase in Habbiniya, between Ramadi and Fallujah to the east on the road to Baghdad.

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In the seesaw campaign that successfully retook Tikrit from ISIS last month, CentCom Commander Gen. Lloyd Austin refused to provide air support until Abadi ordered Shiite militias aligned with Iran to stay out of the fight.

Ryder said that Austin was prepared to provide air support to Shiite militias in a counter-attack against Ramadi if they remained under the command and control of the Iraqi government in Baghdad.

Sectarian Violence

In New London, Conn., where President Obama was giving the commencement address at the Coast Guard Academy, Deputy White House Press Secretary Eric Schultz said it would be up to the Iraqi government to avoid the potential of violence in mixing the Sunni and Shiite forces.

"We always are concerned about sectarian violence, and that's why it's going to be important for these forces to be under the command and control of the Iraqi Security Forces," Schultz said.

On Tuesday, Obama called his national security team including Defense Secretary Ashton Carter to the White House on the Ramadi crisis but Schultz said there were no immediate plans to change tactics or strategy.

"There is no formal strategy review that is underway," Schultz said.

Ryder said he could provide no additional details on the equipment abandoned by the Iraqi forces fleeing Ramadi that reportedly included U.S. Humvees and M1A1 Abrams tanks.

With the equipment now in ISIS possession, the U.S. was left with the prospect of once again conducting airstrikes against U.S. vehicles that were meant to bolster ISF defenses.

In its latest report on targets damaged and destroyed in Iraq and Syria, CentCom on May 8 said that 77 tanks and 288 Humvees captured by ISIS had been destroyed by airstrikes since the bombing campaign began last Aug. 8.

The Iraqi defenders of Ramadi did not include any of the roughly 7,000 Iraqis who have been trained by U.S. Army and Marine advisors since the ISIS advance into Iraq began last summer and quickly overran Mosul, Iraq's second-largest city, Ryder said.

The U.S.-trained Iraqis have been used in other areas but were not present in Ramadi, Ryder said, adding that he could not predict whether they would be used in a counter-offensive.

Obama administration critics have seized on the fall of Ramadi to highlight again what they have labeled as a major blunder in the withdrawal of U.S. combat forces in 2011.

McCain Criticizes Lack of Strategy

In a Senate floor speech Wednesday, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said that the administration's strategy in Iraq could not be said to be unraveling "because there is not a strategy to unravel."

Iraqi officials said that ISIS fighters appeared to be consolidating their gains in Ramadi while sending out probing forces between Ramadi and Habbaniya, according to Reuters. If ISIS could take Habbaniya, the terror group would have a clear corridor between Ramadi and Fallujah, the town to the east that they have controlled for more than a year.

Fallujah and Ramadi were scenes of some of the most prolonged and bloody fighting of the Iraq war after the U.S. invasion in 2003.

"It breaks my heart" to see ISIS in control of Ramadi, said Marine Gen. John Kelly, commander of the U.S. Southern Command.

In remarks Tuesday to the Atlantic Council, Kelly, who commanded I Marine Expeditionary Force (forward) in 2007 and Multi-National Force-West in Iraq from 2008-2009, said "I've got over two years of my life in Ramadi and Anbar province."

"As a senior commander once and as a second senior commander once, I got hundreds of young Americans either killed or wounded under my command," said Kelly, who is considered a possible successor to Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford as the next Marine Commandant.

Kelly contrasted the situation in Ramadi today with his memories of the city after insurgents were defeated.

"My last saunters down the streets of Ramadi, I walked unarmed with just my Iraqi soldiers -- a couple of the Iraqi soldiers who had sidearms," he said. "Same thing in Fallujah when I left there."

The fall of Ramadi has also triggered a humanitarian crisis as thousands of refugees flee the provincial capital of Anbar province and try to find shelter in Baghdad.

On Wednesday, the Iraqi government waived restrictions and permitted the refugees to cross a bridge over the Euphrates into Baghdad. The central government previously had barred refugees who did not have a relative in Baghdad for fear that ISIS suicide bombers might be hiding in their ranks.

According to the International Organization for Migration, part of the United Nations' country team in Iraq, more than 40,000 people have fled Ramadi since the ISIS takeover.

-- Richard Sisk can be reached at richard.sisk@military.com

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