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Iraqis Make Gains in Drive to Retake Ramadi from ISIS: Pentagon

Iraqi Army and Sunni volunteer tribal fighters tighten the siege of Ramadi, the capital of Iraq's Anbar province, 70 west of Baghdad, Iraq, Monday, Nov. 30, 2015.  (AP Photo/Osama Sami)
Iraqi Army and Sunni volunteer tribal fighters tighten the siege of Ramadi, the capital of Iraq's Anbar province, 70 west of Baghdad, Iraq, Monday, Nov. 30, 2015. (AP Photo/Osama Sami)

Iraqi Security Forces claimed to have retaken their former headquarters Tuesday in the flashpoint city of Ramadi in the long-stalled push to drive the Islamic State from the provincial capital of Anbar province.

The Iraqi Security Forces, or ISF, and Iraqi officials have a track record of making inflated claims, but Pentagon Press Secretary Peter Cook appeared to confirm the progress when he said, "We're encouraged by what we're seeing on the ground."

Cook noted gains made by the ISF in the sprawling Tamim neighborhood of Ramadi, which the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, was believed to have laced with improvised explosive devices and a maze of tunnels.

Maj. Gen. Ismail al-Mahlawi, leader of the ISF's Anbar force, told The Washington Post by phone from Ramadi that his soldiers had seized the army headquarters in the city from ISIS. The black-and-white flag of ISIS that flew over the building had been removed and replaced with the Iraqi colors, he said.

"It's a major victory today. Now we are in the center," he said. "It's only a matter of time before we announce the liberation of the city."

If successful, the retaking of Ramadi would be a major milestone in what has been a slow and erratic campaign by the ISF, backed by U.S. airstrikes, to reclaim territory from ISIS.

Last May, greatly outnumbered ISIS fighters humiliated the ISF by driving them from Ramadi, leading Defense Secretary Ashton Carter to question whether the Iraqi forces "lacked the will to fight."

Last month, Army Col. Steve Warren, a spokesman for Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve, said that the ISF had finally completed the encirclement of Ramadi by taking the Palestine bridge over the Euphrates River.

However, Joint Chiefs Chairman Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford said last week that the ISF was not moving as quickly as the U.S. would like, and he predicted that retaking Ramadi would be a process of months, and not weeks.

On Tuesday, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said the U.S. predictions were off the mark. "Very soon, we will finish Ramadi," Abadi said in an address on Iraqi television. He said the city would fall to his forces "in days."

The progress in Ramadi came as critics renewed their charges that the Obama administration's policy of airstrikes combined with training and advising local forces was ineffective against ISIS.

"I don't think we are where we need to be," Michèle Flournoy, the former undersecretary of Defense for policy, told the Senate Armed Services Committee.

Flournoy, the chief executive of the Center for a New American Security, said, "I think that this threat has shown itself to be much more serious than I think we first realized."

Flournoy, who was considered a candidate for defense secretary before Obama chose Ashton Carter, said, "It's something that's a long-term challenge that we need to deal with, and I don't think we are fully resourcing a multi-dimensional strategy."

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

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