WASHINGTON – The Islamic State group's capture of Ramadi, a key provincial capital in western Iraq, calls into question the Obama administration's strategy in Iraq.
Is there a Plan B?
The current U.S. approach is a blend of retraining and rebuilding the Iraqi army, prodding Baghdad to reconcile with the nation's Sunnis, and bombing Islamic State targets from the air without committing American ground combat troops.
But the rout in Ramadi revealed a weak Iraqi army, slow reconciliation and a bombing campaign that, while effective, is not decisive.
On Monday, administration officials acknowledged the fall of Ramadi, the capital of Anbar province, as a "setback." They still maintained, however, the campaign would ultimately bring victory. They counseled patience and said periodic setbacks are to be expected in confronting the Islamic State.
But anything close to a victory appeared far off. In gaining control of Ramadi over the weekend, Islamic State fighters killed as many as 500 Iraqi civilians and soldiers and caused 8,000 people to flee their homes. On Monday the militants did a door-to-door search looking for policemen and pro-government tribesmen.
One alternative for the Obama administration would be a containment strategy — trying to fence in the conflict rather than push the Islamic State group out of Iraq. That might include a combination of airstrikes and U.S. special operations raids to limit the group's reach. In fact, a Delta Force raid in Syria on Friday killed an IS leader known as Abu Sayyaf who U.S. officials said oversaw the group's oil and gas operations, a major source of funding.
Officials have said containment might become an option but is not under active discussion now.
Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, issued a written statement Monday that suggested Ramadi will trigger no change in the U.S. approach.
"Setbacks are regrettable but not uncommon in warfare," Dempsey said. "Much effort will now be required to reclaim the city."
It seems highly unlikely that President Barack Obama would take the more dramatic route of sending ground combat forces into Iraq to rescue the situation in Ramadi or elsewhere. A White House spokesman, Eric Shultz, said Monday the U.S. will continue its support through airstrikes, advisers and trainers; he pointed to an intensified series of coalition air assaults in the Ramadi area, which included eight strikes overnight Sunday.
The administration has said repeatedly that it does not believe Iraq can be stabilized for the long term unless Iraqis do the ground fighting.
Ramadi may not be the most important prize in Iraq but it carries special significance to many in the American military because it was the scene of bloody battles against insurgents, costing many U.S. lives before the city was pacified in 2006-07.
Pentagon officials insisted Monday the current U.S. approach to combating IS in Iraq is still viable and that the loss of Ramadi was merely part of the ebb and flow of war, not a sign that the Islamic State had exposed a fatal weakness in the Iraqi security forces and the U.S. strategy.
"We will retake Ramadi," said Col. Steve Warren, a Pentagon spokesman. The timing, he added, will be up to the Iraqi government.
Analysts are skeptical. Stephen Biddle, a George Washington University professor of political science who periodically advised U.S. commanders in Iraq during the 2003-2011 war, said Obama has been trying to split the Sunni tribes away from the Islamic State while pressing the Iraqi government to foster and rely on non-sectarian military forces.
"That's clearly not working, or at least it's not making the progress we had hoped it would make," Biddle said.
The Institute for the Study of War, which closely tracks developments in Iraq, said Ramadi was a key Islamic State victory.
"This strategic gain constitutes a turning point in ISIS' ability to set the terms of battle in Anbar as well to project force in eastern Iraq," the institute said.
The full implication of Ramadi's fall is hard to define. But it almost certainly includes not only suffering for Ramadi's residents but also a delay in any Iraqi push to retake Mosul, the largest city in northern Iraq and an Islamic State stronghold since last June.
U.S. officials had said as recently as February that they hoped the Iraqis would be ready to march on Mosul by April or May, but those hopes had faded even before Ramadi was lost.
Associated Press writer Nedra Pickler contributed to this report.