WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States signaled no intent to shift its strategy in Iraq’s war on Monday, even as the fall of the city of Ramadi to Islamic State called into question the relative strength of Iraq’s army after months of U.S.-led advising and air strikes.
The loss of the western Iraqi city to the militants represents the biggest defeat for Iraq’s government since mid-2014, when Islamic State swept into Iraq and seized more than a third of the country.
The U.S. government expressed confidence that Iraqi forces, with U.S.-led coalition support, would eventually retake Ramadi, and that the American strategy in Iraq that keeps U.S. forces off the battlefield was still sound.
“There’s no denying that this is indeed a setback, but there’s also no denying that we’ll help the Iraqis take back Ramadi,” White House spokesman Eric Schultz told reporters who were traveling with President Barack Obama.
At the Pentagon, spokesman Colonel Steve Warren urged reporters to not “read too much” into the setback in Ramadi.
“We will retake it in the same way that we are slowly but surely retaking other parts of Iraq, and that is with Iraqi ground forces and coalition air power,” Warren said.
Whether President Barack Obama might be considering further steps to confront Islamic State militants remained unclear.
Last week, the White House said it was rushing weapons and ammunition to Baghdad to help it confront the militants.
But U.S. officials said Iraq had to “own” the fight, not the U.S. military.
The Obama administration was not reexamining its prohibition on deploying American ground combat forces in Iraq, something many of Obama’s supporters would see as a return to the war he promised to end in his 2008 election, officials said.
The United States pulled out all of its troops in 2011 but redeployed around 3,000 forces last year to help Iraqi forces in their battle against Islamic State.
“Having American troops drawn into this fight... (would come) with a host of problems,” said one U.S. military official, speaking on condition of anonymity.
A civilian U.S. official told Reuters: “What we need is for everybody who is in Iraq to defend Iraq, and in the end, it’s got to be Iraqis.”
“Remember whose country it is and who’s got to take responsibility for it. It’s not the United States, in this case. It’s the Iraqis,” the official also said.
A column of 3,000 Shi’ite militia fighters arrived Monday at a military base near Ramadi as Baghdad moved to retake the city.
The Pentagon said there was room for the Shi’ite paramilitaries in the fight, “as long as the militias are controlled by the central Iraqi government.”
Setting the stage for renewed fighting over the city, Islamic State militants advanced in armored vehicles from Ramadi towards the base where the Shi’ite paramilitaries were amassing for a counter-offensive, witnesses and a military officer said.
Asked if Obama was likely to change strategy, which was effectively set when he decided to withdraw U.S. troops from Iraq by the end of 2011 and leave the country’s defense to local forces, one official replied: “I don’t think so.”
“The full power of Iraq, including the Shi’ite militias, wasn’t included in this battle. They need to be. I don’t see why the president’s strategy has to change, but clearly something has to change,” the official said, suggesting a greater Iraqi effort to defend its territory.
Additional reporting by Julia Edwards aboard Air Force One, David Alexander and Arshad Mohammed in Washington; Editing by Susan Heavey, Lisa Lambert and Bernadette Baum