- The Washington Times - Monday, May 18, 2015

The retreat of Iraq’s security forces in Ramadi and the successful hunt-and-kill mission by U.S. commandos in Syria demonstrate that the Obama administration needs to put more boots on the ground in Iraq to take on the Islamic State, military analysts say.

The terrorist army’s rout of Ramadi on Sunday showed Iraqi Security Forces, after months of U.S. training, standing up to Islamic State fighters little better than the ISF did a year ago when soldiers ran from Mosul and northern Iraq.

Meanwhile, Delta Force’s insertion Friday night into Syria that killed about a dozen terrorists displayed American might: a surgical strike into an Islamic State compound whose fighters were no match for highly trained, night-fighting commandos. Delta Force killed Islamic State oil smuggler Abu Sayyaf. His wife, Umm Sayyaf, also an operative, was captured.

It was a snapshot reminiscent of the 2007-08 troop surge in which teams of Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) — Delta Force, Navy SEALs and intelligence operatives — conducted scores of precision raids to kill what was then al Qaeda in Iraq. By 2008, al Qaeda in Iraq was essentially defeated, only to be reborn, once U.S. troops left Iraq in 2011, as the Islamic State, also called ISIL and ISIS.

Analysts say these twin developments — the fall of Ramadi and a successful counterterrorism raid — demonstrate that, on some level, the Obama administration needs to replicate the surge’s special operations piece.

“Night raids using JSOC direct-action special operations forces are an effective way to put pressure on the ISIS leadership, similar to what was so effective in Iraq and Afghanistan when we averaged eight to 10 a night targeting al Qaeda and Taliban leadership,” said retired Army Gen. Jack Keane, a planner of the original troop surge.

“We captured far more than we killed, and the intelligence was invaluable,” he said. “Clearly, we do not have the troops on the ground now in Iraq that would help generate some of the targets, and there are no troops in Syria. But, nonetheless, these operations using national and regional intelligence sources should be far more routine as opposed to the exception.”

Robert Maginnis, a retired Army infantry officer, said inserting commandos can help Iraq immediately while the U.S. training contingent continues to work with the Iraqi Security Forces.

“Delta’s success in eastern Syria, killing Sayyaf and capturing his wife along with a trove of possible intelligence-rich materials, demonstrates the utility of ground forces,” Mr. Maginnis said. “The Iraqis won’t be able to conduct similar operations anytime soon, while our special operators can erode ISIS leadership precipitously and therefore force them to lose nerve and begin to withdraw. They must be made to fear that at any moment U.S. killers will swoop in and kill or capture ISIS leaders.”

Fleeing the purge of Ramadi

But the Obama administration is sticking to its two-prong strategy: strike the Islamic State from the air in daily U.S. and Arab bombings while training Iraqi troops to do the ground fighting.

The administration is generally downplaying the fall of Ramadi, the capital of Anbar province and a hub for Sunni political and tribal leaders who have long felt alienated by the Shiite-dominated government in Baghdad.

“Ramadi has been contested for 18 months, and ISIL now has the advantage,” said Navy Cmdr. Elissa Smith, a Pentagon spokeswoman. “We have always known the fight would be long and difficult, particularly in Anbar. We continue to support with air power and advice to the Iraqi forces, and our planes are in the air now working through the [joint operations center] for ISIL targets.”

“We have conducted nine strikes over the past 24 hours. We have long said that there would be ebbs and flows on the battlefield. But I want to be clear: If ISIL takes areas of Ramadi, that just means the coalition will support Iraqi forces and local tribes to take them back,” Cmdr. Smith said. “ISIL will be defeated in Ramadi and elsewhere in Iraq. This campaign will be painstaking, and it will take a long time, something we have always made clear.”

According to Associated Press reports, Islamic State militants in Ramadi searched door to door for policemen and pro-government fighters and threw bodies in the Euphrates River in a bloody purge on Monday. Some 500 civilians and soldiers died in the extremist killing spree since the final push for Ramadi began Friday, authorities said.

Some 8,000 people also have fled the city, said Muhannad Haimour, a spokesman for the Anbar provincial government. It was not immediately clear how many people remain in Ramadi — once a city of 850,000 that has been draining population for months amid fighting with the militants besieging it. An enormous exodus took place in April, when the U.N. estimates some 114,000 residents streamed out of Ramadi and surrounding villages.

On Monday, U.N. Deputy Spokesman Farhan Haq said more than 6,500 families had fled in recent days, with the hospital in the nearby city of Khaldiya reporting many casualties, the AP reported.

From the start of the U.S. bombing in August, a number of military experts looked at the sorry state of the Iraqi army and said the Pentagon must increase its presence on the ground. One idea is to provide ground air controllers to point out targets for strike aircraft. Another is to assemble a new special operations task force to conduct missions such as Friday’s Delta Force insertion across the border into eastern Syria.

‘On the defensive’

The Ramadi setback dashes the optimism expressed by Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi when he launched the Anbar counteroffensive last month and was photographed handing weapons to Sunni fighters.

Mr. Abadi is calling on Shiite militias, some of whom are trained and equipped by Iran’s special operations Quds Force, to fight to take back Ramadi. Those fighters were instrumental in retaking the Sunni city of Tikrit, north of Baghdad, from Islamic State fighters.

The prime minister tweeted a photo Monday night of himself meeting with the Iranian defense minister. He then tweeted that he was meeting with leaders of the Popular Mobilization Force, the official name given to Shiite militias.

On Sunday, Mr. Abadi met with Army Gen. Lloyd Austin, chief of U.S. Central Command, which is leading the coalition of U.S., Arab and European forces.

“The capture of Ramadi by ISIS stunned the world,” said a report on Monday by the Institute for the Study of War in Washington.

In the struggle to retain Ramadi, the city had become a symbol of joint Iraqi army-Sunni tribal resistance, the institute said.

“The fall of the city thus represents a major blow to the security of Iraq in general and of Anbar Province in particular,” the report said. “Ramadi strengthens ISIS’s military posture in western Iraq and places ISIS in a position to dictate the terms of battle elsewhere in Anbar province. ISIS’s presence in Ramadi severs supply lines connecting Baghdad to ISF-controlled districts in western Anbar, such as Haditha, the Haditha Dam, and al Asad Airbase, which houses U.S. personnel, making them more susceptible to attacks by ISIS.”

The think tank said that Mr. Abadi’s decision to call in Shiite fighters “bolsters the narrative that the militias are the true defenders of Iraq and the U.S.-led coalition [is] irrelevant.”

On Friday, two days before Ramadi fell, Marine Brig. Gen. Thomas D. Weidley, chief of staff for Gen. Austin, delivered an upbeat war picture to reporters back in Washington.

“We firmly believe [ISIL] is on the defensive throughout Iraq and Syria, attempting to hold previous gains while conducting small-scale, localized harassing attacks,” Gen. Weidley said.

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