The success of Iraqi Sunni forces backed by coalition airstrikes in the battle for Ramadi shows that the U.S. has a coherent strategy for defeating the Islamic State that is making considerable progress, Pentagon and U.S. Central Command officials said Monday.
In a statement, Defense Secretary Ashton Carter said the overall plan to avoid U.S. "boots on the ground" while advising and training local forces in Iraq and Syria, and supporting them with air power, had met with success in Ramadi.
"The fight for Ramadi demonstrates how capable, motivated local forces backed by coalition air support and training can defeat ISIL," Carter said, using another acronym for the Islamic State of Iraqi and Syria.
"The expulsion of ISIL [from Ramadi] by Iraqi Security Forces, supported by our international coalition, is a significant step forward in the campaign to defeat this barbaric group and restore Iraq's territorial sovereignty," Carter said.
Carter's statement contrasted with his testimony earlier this month before the Senate Armed Services Committee in which he said he agreed with Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Joseph Dunford that, "We have not contained ISIL."
In a rare public statement, Gen. Lloyd Austin, the CentCom commander, echoed Carter in saying, "Enabled by the efforts of the international coalition, Iraq's security forces have secured the Government Center complex in Ramadi."
Austin, who was pilloried at a committee hearing in September over the failure of a Syrian training program, rattled off a list of recent successes in Iraq and Syria to underline the Obama administration's contention that ISIS was steadily losing momentum and territory.
"Coupled with other recent ISIL losses across Iraq and Syria, including at Tikrit, Bayji, al Hawl, the Tishrin Dam, and Sinjar, the seizure of the Government Center clearly demonstrates that the enemy is losing momentum as they steadily cede territory," Austin said.
The administration and the military have come under withering criticism in recent months from partisans on both sides of the aisle in Congress over what they claim is a lack of a comprehensive strategy against ISIS -- not just a strategy with which they don't agree.
The critics have called for the imposition of a "no-fly zone" over Syria and a "safe zone" for refugees along the Turkish-Syrian border. They also have called for U.S. advisers to move closer to the front lines to call in airstrikes.
The campaign against ISIS has also become fodder for the presidential campaign, as Republican candidates have lined up to call Obama "feckless" and charge that he lacks the will to confront ISIS. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has also differed with the administration by calling for a "no-fly zone" over Syria, which Obama has thus far ruled out.
One of Obama's most vehement critics, Sen. John McCain, a Republican from Arizona and chairman of the Senate panel, in a statement Monday said, "The liberation of the city center of Ramadi is a major milestone in the fight against ISIL, a significant achievement for the Iraqi Security Forces, and a tribute to the tireless efforts of U.S. and coalition forces who have enabled this victory."
McCain added, "The recent capture of Tishrin dam by opposition forces in Syria, similarly supported by U.S. and coalition forces, also represents a meaningful setback for ISIL."
"However, no one should understate how much work remains and how much more difficult that work will be than liberating Ramadi. The black flags of ISIL still fly over Mosul, Raqqa, and other key parts of Iraq and Syria," he said.
Ramadi, the provincial capital of mostly-Sunni Anbar province, became a symbol of ISIS' strength last May when heavily-outnumbered ISIS fighters attacked and ISF defenders fled, shedding their uniforms and leaving their equipment behind.
Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has said the Iraqi Security Forces will now focus on northern Mosul, Iraq's second-largest city which has been held by ISIS for more than a year. However, U.S. officials warned that pockets of resistance remain in Ramadi, and the ISF had much work to do in clearing improvised explosive devices and booby-trapped houses in the city.
Despite the recent setbacks, the secretive ISIS leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, issued a defiant statement last week to really his followers, claiming that ISIS was "expanding and getting stronger."
The statement was Baghdadi's first in the seven months since he was believed to have been wounded in a coalition airstrike.
Baghdadi urged his followers, "Be confident that God will grant victory to those who worship him, and hear the good news that our state is doing well. The more intense the war against it, the purer it becomes and the tougher it gets."
Britain's Daily Telegraph said the pep talk "appeared to be an effort to rally ISIL followers against the growing number of enemies arrayed against them."
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@military.com.