- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 17, 2015

As American officials say they are putting the Islamic State on the defensive, a key Iraqi city fell to the Islamist group and analysts cautioned that the U.S. may be downplaying gains by the terrorists under pressure for the coalition campaign to be seen as succeeding.

Just one day after U.S. officials announced the killing of an Islamic State leader in Syria as a blow to the group, terrorist fighters took over Ramadi on Sunday, driving out all Iraqi Security Forces and gaining control of the entire city, The Associated Press reported from Iraq.

The takeover marks a major loss for the Iraqi government and the U.S.-Arab coalition supporting the mission with airstrikes.

The fall of Ramadi began with four simultaneous bombings targeting police across the city, killing 10 and wounding 15, AP reported.

After more suicide bombings and clashes between Iraqi forces and Islamic State fighters, the Iraqi troops fled the city, leaving behind military vehicles and weapons, the wire service said, adding that there were reports of mass killings of Iraqi Security Forces troops and civilians.

On Friday, Brig. Gen. Thomas Weidley, chief of staff of the Combined Joint Task Force Operation Inherent Resolve, said the attack that set off the fall of Ramadi was not a significant setback. He said it looked similar to previous attacks by the Islamic State that the Iraqi forces were able to repel.

The Islamic State “does remain on the defensive,” he told reporters at the Pentagon via phone from Southwest Asia. “We will see episodic, temporary successes, but again these typically don’t materialize into long-term gains.”

Linda Robinson, senior international policy analyst at the Rand Corp., said the types of actions taken by the Islamic State in Ramadi do not represent a force that is on the defensive and that U.S. officials have been “overstating the effects that have been achieved on the battlefield to date” in the fight against the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL.

“I don’t think ISIL is on the defensive because they have shown an ability to turn from Tikrit and renew attacks in Baiji, renew attacks in Anbar,” she said. “I have to say, I think this whole idea that counter-ISIL campaign has gained some kind of upper hand or reached a tipping point is incorrect.”

She cautioned that overstating gains made by Iraqi forces will only set an unrealistic timeline for defeating the Islamic State.

“I think there is pressure to identify forward movement on the part of the counter-ISIL campaign,” she said. “I understand that and I think there have been some gains, but I think it doesn’t do anyone any good to overcharacterize those gains.”

In another loss for the Islamic State, though, the U.S. announced a raid over the weekend that killed a leader of the terrorist group as well as more than 30 other members.

About two dozen U.S. Army Delta Force commandos raided a compound in eastern Syria, killing Islamic State leader Abu Sayyaf and capturing his wife, who is suspected to also be a member of the terrorist organization.

“The operation represents another significant blow to ISIL, and it is a reminder that the United States will never waver in denying safe haven to terrorists who threaten our citizens and those of our friends and allies,” Defense Secretary Ashton Carter said.

Though no U.S. troops were killed or injured in the raid, the top Democrat on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence questioned Sunday whether putting American lives in the danger in the raid was worth the “extraordinary risk” involved.

“If one of our people were captured, if we lost some of our Special Forces, there would be tough questions to answer about whether it was worth it,” Rep. Adam B. Schiff, California Democrat, said on CNN’s “State of the Union.”

“I think not withstanding the success of this operation, we still are going to have to ask those questions. Was the intelligence value that we hoped to gain and the fact that we are gaining worth this kind of risk?”

Mr. Carter noted that Abu Sayyaf “helped direct the terrorist organization’s illicit oil, gas and financial operations.” Wife Umm Sayyaf also may have been complicit in the enslavement of a Yazidi girl who was rescued in the raid, the Pentagon said.

Before the raid, Nora Bensahel, a distinguished scholar in residence at American University, also dismissed the idea that the Islamic State is on the run but said Iraqi forces are challenging the terrorist group’s ability to expand and are making some gains in securing contested cities.

“I think [the Islamic State is] continuing to fight and capture objectives that are very important to them,” she said. “That’s a sign of an organization that is continuing to grow and develop.”

Gen. Weidley said any Islamic State victories would be “short-lived and highly costly” for the fighters.

Ms. Bensahel, however, said she does not expect the fight to retake Ramadi to be quick or easy for Iraqi Security Forces.

Because of the symbolism of Ramadi, which was a significant victory for Americans during the Iraq War, the Islamic State will be more motivated to retain their ground, making it more challenging for Iraqi Security Forces to retake terrorist-held parts of the city, she said.

Despite that, Ms. Bensahel said, she expects Iraqi Security Forces to eventually win the fight in Ramadi and the broader fight across the country — though “it may take a lot of time.”

The fight at Ramadi is not the only one where the Islamic State is having success. Gen. Weidley said a key oil refinery in Baiji remains contested, with several hundred Islamic State recruits fighting to breach the perimeter and maintain “episodic control” of parts of the refinery.

To highlight victories against the Islamic State, Gen. Weidley noted Kobani in northern Syria, Iraq’s Sinjar Mountain and a 25-square-mile area south of Tikrit, Iraq, that Kurdish peshmerga forces secured in just two days.

He also said a change in the Islamic State’s behavior signifies that it is on the defensive. Last summer, he said, fighters would wear uniforms, display the group’s flag and travel in large groups, but recruits now are more conspicuous, traveling in smaller groups and in civilian vehicles.

“We believe across Iraq and Syria that [the Islamic State] is losing,” Gen. Weidley said. “We’re going to continue to see these episodic attacks, harassing attacks, sometimes complex attacks, sometimes high-profile attacks, in order to further their messages.”

Tikrit, the hometown of the Saddam Hussein clan that was liberated from the Islamic State in April, remains securely in government hands and is another success story for the American-trained Iraqi Security Forces aided by U.S. air support, Gen. Weidley said.

“This is a great example of the power of the coalition combined with Iraqi Security Forces able to liberate Tikrit in short order,” he said.

The city is still uninhabitable about a month after fighting ended because essential services have not been restored and improvised explosives remain. Gen. Weidley said local forces are working to clear the undetonated explosives so people can return.

In Iraq late Sunday, a large number of Shiite militiamen arrived at a military base near Ramadi, perhaps to participate in a counteroffensive, said the head of the Anbar provincial council, Sabah Karhout.

“We welcome any group, including Shiite militias, to come and help us in liberating the city from the militants. What happened today is a big loss caused by lack of good planning by the military,” Sunni tribal leader Naeem al-Gauoud told AP.

Ramadi Mayor Dalaf al-Kubaisi said more than 250 civilians and security forces were killed over two days, including dozens of police and other government supporters shot dead in the streets or their homes, along with their wives, children and other family members.

This article is based in part on wire service reports from Baghdad.

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