The White House insisted Tuesday that President Obama’s strategy for defeating the Islamic State is succeeding, though a spokesman acknowledged they regularly discuss tweaks, as the terrorist group recaptured a key Iraqi city this weekend and established a new base in Libya.
Critics on Capitol Hill said tweaks aren’t good enough. House Speaker John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican, said the military campaign is so bungled that Mr. Obama should scrap his war powers request he sent to Congress three months ago and come up with a plan that calls for enough U.S. involvement to reverse the gains made by the Islamic State, also known as ISIL or ISIS.
“ISIL did succeed in eventually overrunning Ramadi, and that’s an indication that would be a setback,” White House press secretary Josh Earnest said Tuesday. “Are we going to light our hair on fire every time that there is a setback in the campaign against ISIL? That doesn’t mean that the strategy needs to be discarded. It also may mean re-evaluating in some areas where the strategy isn’t working as intended and needs to be upgraded. We’ve seen there are no quick fixes.”
Mr. Obama was briefed by his national security team Tuesday on the latest developments in Iraq and the fight in Anbar province. The White House said Mr. Obama welcomed the decision Tuesday by the Iraqi Council of Ministers to accelerate the training and equipping of local fighters and to “develop a consolidated plan to retake Ramadi.”
Since last summer, the U.S. has led an air campaign that has struck at Islamic State targets in Iraq and Syria and has committed troops to provide logistics support for Iraqi, Kurdish and other ground forces working against the terrorist group. But Mr. Obama has resisted calls for a broader U.S. role.
Mr. Boehner said the White House plan isn’t working.
“We don’t have a strategy,” he said, demanding a do-over from Mr. Obama on his Iraq plans.
Mr. Boehner spent much of last year demanding that Mr. Obama send a request for Congress to authorize the use of military force, known in Capitol-speak as an AUMF.
When Mr. Obama did send one, it left Congress paralyzed. No major legislative action has occurred in the three months since.
Facing stiff criticism from those who think Congress is shirking its duties, Mr. Boehner said it was Mr. Obama who was failing by sending a bad request that asked for less power to fight the Islamic State than he has had under the 2001 legislation that authorized war against al Qaeda and the Taliban — the powers the president has been using to conduct the air campaign against the Islamic State.
In Iraq, the Shiite-led government moved to try to reverse the loss of Ramadi, the capital of Iraq’s largest Sunni province. But the government was hamstrung by the sectarian politics that it has failed to overcome ever since Islamic State fighters began their rampage more than a year ago.
Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi vowed Tuesday to arm Sunni tribesmen to help retake Ramadi, a plan the U.S. has encouraged to better empower the minority community in the fight to defend their cities and to reduce their support for the Sunni extremists.
But the pledge met immediate skepticism from Sunnis, given that similar promises after Islamic State militants seized the northern city of Mosul last summer were barely implemented.
Shiite rivals within Mr. al-Abadi’s government who oppose arming Sunnis also signaled resistance to the prime minister’s plan.
At the same time, the government was rallying Iranian-backed Shiite militiamen to join the offensive, raising the prospect of dangerous frictions in a country that was nearly torn to pieces by Shiite-Sunni violence in 2006 and 2007. Though the Shiite militiamen have been crucial to reversing other losses to Islamic State militants, they also have been accused of abuses against Sunni residents of those areas.
About 3,000 Shiite militiamen have deployed near Ramadi, most in the Habbaniya military base and the town of Khaldiya, east of the city. Others deployed on routes from Anbar province toward southern Iraq to prevent any Islamic State attempt to advance on Shiite holy sites there.
With fresh challenges arising, the White House pointed to previous setbacks followed by successes, including the coalition’s successful effort to drive Islamic State fighters out of Kobani, a Syrian city near the Turkish border, late last year with the help of Kurdish ground forces.
Mr. Earnest also said the Obama administration’s strategy in Iraq is wiser than President George W. Bush’s decision to invade and occupy Iraq.
This White House, he said, has “expended is a microscopic fraction of the blood and treasure that was committed under the previous administration.”
“Whether it’s retaking Kobani or more recently retaking Tikrit or preventing a genocide at Mount Sinjar, or retaking the critical infrastructure around the Mosul Dam — those are areas of progress and where we have enjoyed success because of the strategy that the president laid out,” the press secretary said. “There are any number of military successes that we can point to where this strategy has succeeded in driving back ISIL. We’re going to continue to pursue a strategy that has yielded important successes so far.”
The White House also blasted Mr. Boehner, saying Congress failed to carry out its constitutional duty to address Mr. Obama’s request for authorizing military force and let down U.S. troops in the process.
“Congress has been AWOL when it comes to the AUMF,” Mr. Earnest said. “At some point, somebody in Congress needs to assume responsibility for this and not just complain about it the whole time. What we see from the speaker is excuse after excuse for why he hasn’t done his job.”
Rep. Adam B. Schiff of California, the ranking Democrat on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence who has proposed a narrow authorization for the war against the Islamic State, also criticized Mr. Boehner’s delays.
“The reality is that we wait only for the courage to act, and that is not something that can be delivered by pouch from the White House,” Mr. Schiff said. “Nothing prevents the House or Senate from marking up its own version of an AUMF, except a desire to avoid the political consequences of a vote on the war.”
Mr. Schiff also was critical of Mr. Obama, telling reporters Tuesday morning that the administration’s claims of success against the Islamic State should set off “alarm bells.”
• Stephen Dinan contributed to this article, which is based in part on wire service reports.