After Fall Of Ramadi, Iraqi Troops Hope For More U.S. Support
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
The flag of the self-proclaimed Islamic State now flies over the Iraqi city of Ramadi, and that has a particular sting for some U.S. service members. Back in 2006, many U.S. troops lost their lives fighting alongside Iraqi forces against insurgents to gain control of Ramadi. So with Ramadi under the control of ISIS, it's a blow to the Iraqi government and U.S. strategy. Loveday Morris of The Washington Post has been speaking with local and federal police who were in the city when it fell to ISIS. She describes Iraqi troops that had been worn down.
LOVEDAY MORRIS: The city briefly fell to ISIS back in January last year. So since then, the city's been under constant attack. Forces are really beleaguered - just exhausted, not getting any time off. There's been intense fighting, suicide bombings. So by the time they got around to this offensive, they really were in an overstretched state.
CORNISH: And the so-called Islamic State is said to have activated sleeper cells in this attack. Describe what role they played.
MORRIS: Sure, yeah. I spoke to one colonel who was on a front line that was right on the Euphrates River. He said that they saw the Islamic State gunboats crossing the river, and they were in the process of fending off this attack when fire starts from behind them. And they, at that point, had believed that the area behind them was secured and was friendly forces, but these sleeper cells activated, and that just sent this front line into a complete state of confusion. Quite often with ISIS, they'll wear military uniforms, so that increases the confusion even more. People don't know who's on their side and who's not on their side, so that caused a very quick collapse on that front line.
CORNISH: Tell us more about the Iraqi special forces unit known as the Golden Division because they were supposed to be involved in bolstering these forces, correct?
MORRIS: Correct. I mean the Golden Division had really been credited with keeping the city secure for as long as it has been. I mean they're elite forces. A lot of them are very closely trained by the Americans. They're seen as the best forces in Iraq, and they had been holding ground in Ramadi for this year and a half. In talking to the Golden Forces commanders, they complained that their men were tied up holding ground, and they shouldn't be doing that. These elite fighters should be an attack force rather than becoming exhausted, coming under constant attack. And it caused a lot of surprise in Ramadi when the Golden Division did retreat.
CORNISH: And there's been some blame going around about that, right? The secretary of defense, Ash Carter, said over the weekend that Iraqi troops needed to develop, quote, "a will to fight." What do you hear from these soldiers?
MORRIS: The reaction here is that that's a slightly unfair statement given the amount of time they've been fighting with very little support. Obviously there have been U.S. airstrikes, and they've been very useful, but there could've been more. There could have been more support from the Americans. There could have been more support from the Iraqi government. Police forces in particular complained about not having weapons. So they feel like they have the will to fight, but no one is supporting them. And also, I mean, just the command structure of the Iraqi Army appears to have crumbled and continuously collapses in the face of attack. And the soldiers complained that, you know, it's the leadership that collapses.
CORNISH: Loveday Morris, standing up and supporting local forces, airstrikes - these are cornerstone aspects of the U.S. strategy here. What does the fall of Ramadi tell us about that?
MORRIS: Well, I mean, one of the complaints here is that the strategy is halfhearted. They appreciate the airstrikes, but they want more airstrikes. They want more support. It'll be interesting to see if the U.S. steps up their support. This has really highlighted the Iraqi armed forces. Obviously they are seriously lacking still in their ability to hold areas - Sunni areas in Anbar - let alone go on the offensive, which was initially the plan in Anbar after winning Tikrit.
CORNISH: Loveday Morris reporting for The Washington Post - thank you so much for speaking with us.
MORRIS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.