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Obama: US Must Rethink Military Assets in Iraq

by VOA News May 26, 2015

President Barack Obama said the U.S. and its NATO allies need to consider how they are deploying military assets against Islamist extremists in Iraq, just hours after Baghdad announced an offensive to retake the provincial capital of Ramadi.

Obama, speaking at the end of a meeting with visiting NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, said the challenge posed by the Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria, and the conflict in Libya, has forced the alliance to look south as well as east in its mission.

'NATO is necessarily recognizing a whole range of global challenges, particularly on what we call the Southern Front ... making sure that we continue to coordinate effectively in the fight against ISIL,' Obama said, using an acronym for the Islamist group. 'It also means we have to think about whether we are deploying and arranging our assets effectively to meet that challenge.'

Obama's comments Tuesday come on the heels of U.S. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter's criticism of Iraqi forces, saying their troops fled the Islamic State advance on Ramadi without fighting back.

A spokesman for Iraq Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said the government was surprised by Carter's comments, telling The Associated Press Monday: 'We should not judge the whole army based on one incident.'

White House spokesman Josh Earnest defended Carter's remarks Tuesday, saying the Iraqi government acknowledged that the setback in Ramadi was the result of a breakdown in command and planning. Moreover, Earnest said, the Iraqi forces in Ramadi had not benefited from U.S. or allied training.

Pentagon spokesman Colonel Steve Warren elaborated on those remarks Tuesday, noting that the Iraqi forces "vastly outnumbered their enemy yet they chose to withdraw."

Warren cited a host of problems that preceded the Iraqi pullout from Ramadi. "Their morale had slipped, their leadership was not up to par. They believed that they were not receiving the support that they thought they needed," he said.

Coalition airstrikes

Over a 24-hour period ending Tuesday, the U.S. military said the coalition coordinated 19 airstrikes against Islamic State targets in Iraq and Syria.

Twelve of the strikes were near the Iraqi cities of Beiji, Fallujah, Hit, Mosul, Sinjar and Tal Afar, while seven were focused near Al Hasakah, Syria.

Earlier Tuesday, the Iraqi government said it had launched an operation to retake the western province of Anbar from Islamic State militants, with a Shi'ite militia spokesman saying Iraqi forces had surrounded Ramadi from three sides.

The announcement on state television came less than two weeks after the Islamist fighters seized Ramadi. Since then, Iraqi troops and pro-government militias had been massing east of the city, preparing for an offensive to reclaim the largely Sunni province.

​​Iraqi media reported shelling and minor clashes between government-allied forces and Islamic State militants along the outskirts of Ramadi.

Shi'ite militia spokesman Ahmed al Assadi said the military operation to liberate Ramadi was dubbed "Labaik ya Hussein" – a slogan in honor of a grandson of the Prophet Mohammed killed in a seventh century battle that led to the schism between Shi'ite and Sunni Muslims, and a phrase likely to exacerbate tensions in the region.

Warren said the key to victory would be a unified Iraq "that separates itself from sectarian divides, coalesces around this common threat." Asked about the sectarian codename, he said: "I think it's unhelpful."

The Shi'ite militiamen, supported by a smaller cadre of government troops, advanced Tuesday to within a few kilometers of a university on Ramadi's southwestern edge, which Warren described as "shaping operations" ahead of a proper offensive.

"Shaping operations in this case are operations in order to secure lines of communication, secure key road junctures and intersections, secure certain terrain ... prior to a full-on offensive" he said.

​​The regular Iraqi military's failure to hold Ramadi has forced the government to send Iran-backed Shi'ite paramilitaries to help retake the city.

Washington is worried this could enrage residents in the overwhelmingly Sunni province and push them into the arms of the Islamic State group.

Biden reaffirms US support

U.S. Vice President Joe Biden telephoned Abadi on Monday in a bid to smooth relations after Carter questioned the will of Iraqi troops who retreated from Ramadi as Islamic State fighters moved in.

The White House said Biden reaffirmed American support for Iraq in the battle against the militant group, and that he 'recognized the enormous sacrifice and bravery of Iraqi forces' in Ramadi and elsewhere in the country. He also pledged that the United States would speed up training and supplying equipment.

On Tuesday, the U.S. military said it would provide about 2,000 anti-tank rockets to Iraq 'within the next week' to help it fight the Islamic State group. It also said the U.S.-led coalition has carried out over 4,100 airstrikes in Iraq and Syria since beginning its campaign in August.

Syria

Syrian activists said the Islamic State-held town of Palmyra is quiet a day after a series of deadly Syrian government air raids that killed 15 people, including a child and two women, in and around the city. The raids came after the government told the AP Islamic State fighters have killed more than 400 state employees, soldiers and pro-government gunmen since they captured the town last week.

Maamoun Abdulkarim, Syria's antiquities chief, said Tuesday the historical ruins at Palmyra, home to a UNESCO World Heritage site, had been unharmed since the Islamic State group seized it from state control last week. However, he said he was still afraid the jihadist group would blow up ancient ruins, including tombs and the Temple of Bel, which would be viewed as idolatrous in its puritanical vision of Islam.

Also, a video released Tuesday by the pro-Islamic State Aamaq News Agency, media arm of the Islamic State group, purportedly shows the archaeological ruins of Palmyra apparently undamaged, but billowing black smoke can be seen behind the ruins.

Reuters could not independently verify the video source.

Edward Yeranian contributed to this report from Cairo. Some material for this report came from Reuters and AP.



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