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Shiite Militia's Name for Ramadi Counter-Offensive Splits Iraq Force

Iraqi Security forces deploy after clashes with militants in Ramadi, 70 miles west of Baghdad, Iraq. (AP Photo/Iraqi Army)

The operational name given by a Shiite militia to the counter-offensive against Ramadi went against U.S. efforts to promote Sunni-Shia unity in Iraq, the Pentagon said Tuesday.

"I think it's unhelpful," Col. Steve Warren, a Pentagon spokesman, said of the name for the operation - "Labaik Ya Hussein" - used by an umbrella group for the "Popular Mobilization" Shiite militias. The phrase roughly translates as "we are at your service, Hussein," a reference to the grandson of the Prophet Mohmmed whose legacy is central to Shia Islam.

Warren echoed the Obama administration's long-standing assertion that the key to defeating ISIS was a "unified Iraq" with a central government in Baghdad that recognized the rights of the Sunni, Shia and Kurdish communities.

Warren also appeared to take issue with Iraq's claims that a major counter-offensive to take Ramadi about 60 miles east of Baghdad had already begun. In a BBC interview, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said the city might be back in government control "in days" as the mostly-Sunni Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) units joined with the Shiite militias in a fight against ISIS defenders.

However, Warren said the counter-offensive was limited thus far to what he called "security zone interactions," meaning probing actions and aggressive patrolling east and south of Ramadi. "It's impossible to put a timeline on it," Warren said of the prospects for the Iraqis in retaking Ramadi.

The fighters of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) were also sending out patrols to gauge the strength of the Iraqi force, Warren said. When asked about Iraqi claims of a major offensive already underway, Warren said "I guess it depends on how you define" the start of an offensive.

However, Ahmad al-Assadi, a spokesman for the Shiite militias called Hashed al-Shaabi (Popular Mobilization in Arabic), announced the start of the military operation to liberate Anbar.

"This operation will end the hit-and-run operations by (ISIS) militants," he said.

A release from U.S. Central Command Tuesday called Ramadi a "tactical setback" in an overall campaign that had ISIS on the defensive.

"We are working in close coordination with the government of Iraq and their security forces to develop supporting plans to their operations to overcome the setback in Ramadi," said Lt. Gen. James Terry, commander of Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve. "These efforts remain an integral component of the wider coalition campaign to defeat Daesh," Terry said, using another acronym for ISIS.

The fall of Ramadi to ISIS over the weekend of May 17 brought the closed-door disputes between the U.S. and the Baghdad government over the conduct of the war into the open.

On CNN Sunday, Defense Secretary Ashton Carter questioned the Iraqis "will to fight" in Ramadi, where Carter said the Iraqi defenders outnumbered the ISIS attacking force and had the huge advantage of U.S. air support.

On Monday, Vice President Joe Biden phoned Abadi in an attempt to soften Carter's remarks. The White House readout of the phone call said the U.S. "recognized the enormous sacrifice and bravery of Iraqi forces over the past eighteen months in Ramadi and elsewhere," and pledged continued support.

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

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