Blame game over Iraq retreat

Blame game over Iraq retreat

The United States and Iraq are engaged in a heated blame game over the fall of Ramadi, with leaders in both capitals pointing fingers over the embarrassing retreat of security forces.

The White House on Tuesday stood by Defense Secretary Ashton Carter’s statement that the Iraqis lacked “the will to fight” against encroaching Islamic militants, with press secretary Josh Earnest calling it a “problem we’ve seen in the past.”

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The Pentagon took the criticism a step further, saying the Iraqi troops “chose to withdraw” from Ramadi despite “a substantial” advantage in combat power.

“In this case of Ramadi, there was a problem of both low morale amongst the troops and there was a problem with the command structure,” Pentagon spokesman Army Col. Steve Warren said. “The command and control structure does not appear to have been fully up to the task.”

Iraqi officials have bristled at Carter’s criticism, with Hakim al-Zamili, the head of the parliamentary defense and security committee, calling it “unrealistic and baseless.”

Al-Zamili said the U.S. bears much of the blame for failing to provide “good equipment, weapons and aerial support” to Iraqi forces. He said Carter was seeking to “throw the blame on somebody else.”

The Pentagon is in the process of speeding more weapons and equipment to Baghdad, but it remains unclear whether any American aid ever reached the forces in Ramadi that were routed by the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq (ISIS). It’s also unclear whether the U.S. effort to train Iraqi security forces — the linchpin of Obama’s strategy against ISIS — is moving quickly enough to prevent ISIS from gaining territory.

Warren on Tuesday acknowledged that none of the 7,000 Iraqi forces that the U.S.-led coalition has trained and equipped were in Ramadi when it fell.  

The U.S. has spent more than $400 million from a $1.6 billion fund approved by Congress to buy weapons and equipment for Iraqi forces. The administration has so far insisted on distributing all military aid through the Shiite-dominated central government of Iraq, which generally views the Sunni tribal fighters with mistrust. 

Out of deference to Baghdad, U.S. and coalition forces are not even training Sunni tribal fighters, leaving the task entirely up to the Iraqi government. 

After the rout at Ramadi, Sunni fighters said they had never received pay or weapons from the central government in the 18 months they had been fighting ISIS. 

Ali Al-Mawlawi, Iraq’s spokesman in Washington, insisted that Baghdad has provided Sunni tribal fighters in Ramadi — the capital of the Sunni heartland of Anbar Province — with arms. 

He also said he was “not sure” whether any of the Sunni tribal fighters recruited three weeks ago near Ramadi had deployed there. 

A senior State Department official last week said during a background briefing that a “list of weapons” have been approved for the Sunni tribal fighters in Anbar Province, but added that the resources “will take some time to get in place.” 

“The weapons have been all approved and it’s just — we have to get them to the [training] site and get them to the guys,” the official said. 

Pentagon officials said the U.S. would continue to send weapons to Sunni fighters through the central government and endorsed a plan by Baghdad to distribute aid faster to the Sunni fighters. 

Despite the difficulties, Pentagon officials said the training program was “on track.” 

“We believe this training program is effective, that it is working,” Warren said. 

But Pentagon officials are also showing signs of impatience, stressing that the Iraqis need to step up to defend their county.

“We’ve long said, and we’ll continue to say, that we want the central government to move arms and equipment to the Sunnis and to the Kurds as rapidly as possible,” Warren added.

With another $566 million in the $1.6 billion fund scheduled for release soon, lawmakers are threatening to withhold money from Baghdad unless it promises to distribute the aid fairly. 

The House earlier this month passed a defense spending bill that would directly distribute 25 percent of $715 million in military aid to Sunni and peshmerga fighters next year if Baghdad does not “appropriately” distribute supplies and meet a number of other conditions to address the political grievances of ethnic and sectarian minorities. 

The administration even argued as part of its November 2014 request for the fund that “failure to equip these forces mean[s] a less effective armed opposition to counter the Islamic State and its ability to gain the local support necessary to effectively control the areas it holds.” 

The administration also warned in that request against having Shiite fighters take on ISIS in Ramadi, arguing that it could increase sectarian tensions. 

However, with the train-and-equip program moving slowly, the administration is now relying on those same Shiite forces to win back the city. The Pentagon said Tuesday that those forces have started operations as part of an eventual counteroffensive to retake Ramadi.