05.19.15

White House Won’t Upend ISIS Strategy

WASHINGTON — The White House on Tuesday defended President Obama’s strategy for countering Islamic State militants in Iraq, arguing that while the group’s capture of the provincial capital of Ramadi had been a setback, it should not be taken as a broader sign that the American approach is failing.

As Mr. Obama assembled his national security team to discuss the latest developments in Iraq and how to retake Ramadi, the largest city in Anbar Province, administration officials said that Mr. Obama’s strategy of conducting airstrikes against the militants while relying on Iraqi forces to confront them on the ground had yielded gains.

“We have seen a lot of success, but we’ve also seen significant periods of setback,” Josh Earnest, Mr. Obama’s press secretary, told reporters at the White House, where questions about the Islamic State dominated the daily briefing.

 

“That’s part of what a military conflict is going to be, particularly one that’s going to be a long-term proposition like this one,” he said.

 

Mr. Earnest added that the president was continuing to look at how he might “tweak the strategy” to adjust to events on the ground.

 

Still, the White House rejected calls to undertake a wholesale re-evaluation of the operation.

 

“Are we going to light our hair on fire every time that there is a setback in the campaign against ISIL?” Mr. Earnest asked, using an alternative name for the group, which is also known as ISIS.

 

The suggestions that Mr. Obama should upend his strategy came from several quarters, with the House speaker, John A. Boehner, Republican of Ohio, declaring that “the president’s plan isn’t working,” and Representative Adam B. Schiff, Democrat of California, telling reporters that the White House’s claims of progress should set off “alarm bells.”

 

Mr. Obama met privately with Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter at the White House on Tuesday and convened a separate meeting of cabinet secretaries, his National Security Council and military commanders to discuss the strategy for confronting the Islamic State.

 

In the biggest victory for the Islamic State this year, militants took advantage of a sandstorm on Sunday to capture Ramadi, the capital of Anbar Province. Fighters seized a large cache of weapons, including rocket-propelled grenades and heavy machine guns supplied by the United States and Russia. On Monday they continued east, attacking the town of Khaldiya.

 

During the group session, according to a White House account, Mr. Obama said he strongly supported Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi of Iraq and welcomed steps being taken by Iraqi ministers to plan for retaking Ramadi with forces under Iraqi command.

 

The White House also cited as a recent success the killing on Saturday of a midlevel Islamic State leader in Syria by American commandos.

 

United States officials on Tuesday identified the man as Fathi ben Awn ben Jildi Murad al-Tunisi, a Tunisian described as the organization’s “emir of oil and gas.”

 

They previously referred to him only by his nom de guerre, Abu Sayyaf.

 

He was believed to have been involved in the Islamic State’s hostage-for-ransom business. Officials said that American troops had seized laptop computers, cellphones and other items that might provide new information about the group.

 

Abu Sayyaf’s wife, known as Umm Sayyaf, was captured in the raid; American interrogators are questioning her in Iraq.

 

“We’re trying to learn as much as we can about her involvement with ISIL and what information she may have that would shed some light about a variety of ISIL activities,” including how the group funds its operations, Mr. Earnest said.

 

The White House also defended Mr. Abadi, whose political position has been weakened considerably by the fall of Ramadi. The fall occurred after he sought, at American officials’ behest, to sideline Shiite militias backed by Iran. Mr. Abadi has now decided to deploy the Popular Mobilization Forces, which include the militias, in efforts to retake the city.

 

Mr. Earnest emphasized that Mr. Abadi had received solid backing from provincial leaders to use the forces, and that they included Sunni volunteers. American officials have said that they will continue their air campaign as long as the Shiite militias are under the control of the prime minister, not Iranians.

“The United States will be very supportive of multisectarian efforts who are taking command-and-control orders from the Iraqi central government,” Mr. Earnest said.

 

But the approach has raised concerns that a ground assault to retake Ramadi could give way to sectarian clashes. Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona and the chairman of the Armed Services Committee, and Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina, issued a joint statement on Monday calling reports of a counteroffensive led by Shiite militias “disturbing.”


Source: New York Times