- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 21, 2015

The administration said Thursday that it would consider sending more military advisers to Iraq, although President Obama doesn’t believe the U.S.-led coalition is losing the war against the Islamic State after the terrorist group’s significant gains in recent days.

Mr. Obama and his advisers again defended his strategy for fighting the Islamic State with U.S.-trained local forces, despite growing evidence that sectarian rifts in Iraq are still hampering efforts to counter the terrorist army, especially in Sunni areas.

But the president and aides have begun to express more criticism of Iraq’s handling of its troops after the high-profile loss of the city of Ramadi this week.

“I don’t think we’re losing,” Mr. Obama said in an interview with The Atlantic that was published Thursday. “There’s no doubt there was a tactical setback, although Ramadi had been vulnerable for a very long time, primarily because these are not Iraqi Security Forces that we have trained or reinforced.”

But top White House aides said increasing the number of U.S. military advisers, from the current 3,000, is under consideration.

“Those are options to be considered, but that’s materially different than a radical change in the strategy that some people are calling for,” said White House press secretary Josh Earnest. “If we were to send more military assistance to Iraqi Security Forces and to put more trainers in the region, I think you might even describe that as a doubling-down on our strategy. Those are decisions that still need to be made.”

The question on the minds of many in Iraq and in national security circles in Washington is whether additional training and weaponry will reach enough Sunni fighters. Despite concerns that the policy has failed to weave Iraq’s Sunni Arabs into the fight against the Islamic State, a senior State Department official said the administration remains confident that Iraqi President Haider al-Abadi can create cohesion between Iran-backed Shiite militias and Sunni tribal fighters to drive the extremists back from Ramadi.

The Islamic State’s seizure of the archaeological treasure at Palmyra in Syria — near a key Syrian weapons arsenal — also has led to calls for Mr. Obama to send more U.S. troops.

Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain, Arizona Republican, said the developments demand a “complete overhaul” of Mr. Obama’s approach.

“The Obama administration seems unwilling or unable to grasp the strategic significance” of the advance by the Islamic State, also known as ISIS and ISIL, Mr. McCain said. “As ISIL terrorists ransacked Ramadi, by the way, the Pentagon’s news page ran a story with the headline, ‘Strategy to defeat ISIL is working.’”

House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Edward R. Royce, California Republican, said the fall of Palmyra, site of some of the world’s best-preserved Greek and Roman ruins, only underscores the dangers posed by the Islamic State’s successes.

“How is it that ISIS is seizing territory on two fronts, ten months after U.S. air strikes began?” Mr. Royce said in a statement. “It’s dreadfully obvious that we aren’t working well enough to defeat ISIS and protect the people of Palmyra and its precious relics of our shared history.”

Mr. Obama said the loss of Ramadi “is indicative that the training of Iraqi Security Forces, the fortifications, the command-and-control systems are not happening fast enough in Anbar, in the Sunni parts of the country.”

“There’s no doubt that in the Sunni areas, we’re going to have to ramp up not just training, but also commitment, and we’d better get Sunni tribes more activated than they currently have been,” Mr. Obama said. “So it is a source of concern.”

Although U.S. troops engaged in a small-scale operation to train Arab tribal fighters in Anbar earlier this year, the Obama administration has since leaned on the Iraqi government to lead the effort. With the Islamic State advancing in recent weeks, Iraqi forces began a training mission in the province in early May.

Despite the major setbacks, White House aides continued to insist that U.S. combat troops are not an option against the Islamic State fighters.

“The president has never supported that strategy,” Mr. Earnest said. “There’s a lot of Monday-morning quarterbacking going on here. The president was opposed to that strategy when it was employed by the previous administration, and he is opposed to that strategy when it’s articulated by what’s almost always Republican members of Congress.”

As for Palmyra, a UNESCO world heritage site, the White House said there is little the U.S. can do at the moment.

“Until we’re able to build up local forces on the ground in Syria who can take the fight to ISIL in their own country this is going to continue to be a difficult challenge, and one that is not going to be solved overnight,” Mr. Earnest said.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, South Carolina Republican, said this week that he would boost the U.S. military contingent in Iraq from the current 3,000 advisers to about 10,000, primarily to train Iraqi forces more quickly. Mr. Earnest said only that the president would not consider “a large-scale U.S. military deployment.”

“A large-scale American military deployment in Iraq and in Syria didn’t work so well the last time we tried it,” he said.

He said the president’s national security team is reviewing whether there is “more that we can do to augment the forces that are currently in the region with forces that have recently been trained by the United States and our coalition partners.” Mr. Earnest also said the need for more training of Iraqi forces is under review “because there is some improvement in performance that we’d like to see on the battlefield.”

“Over the long term, as this training effort continues, we’ll see more and more capable, trained and equipped Iraqi security forces and moderate opposition forces inside of Syria that can take the fight to ISIL in their own country,” he said.

Mr. McCain, speaking at a congressional hearing, said the Islamic State’s takeover of Ramadi “highlights the shortcomings of the administration’s indecisive policy, inadequate commitment and incoherent strategy.”

“The loss of Ramadi, once the symbol of Iraqis working together with brave young Americans in uniform to defeat al Qaeda, must be recognized as a significant defeat,” Mr. McCain said.

The president pointed to “significant progress” in northern Iraq, where Kurdish forces are participating with Iraqi troops and U.S. advisers.

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