Defense chief: After Ramadi, Iraq's 'will to fight' at issue

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WASHINGTON (AP) -- The Islamic State group's takeover of the provincial capital Ramadi is stark evidence that Iraqi forces lack the "will to fight," Defense Secretary Ash Carter said in a TV interview that aired Sunday. The harsh assessment raised new questions about the Obama administration's strategy to defeat the extremist group that has seized a strategically important swath of the Middle East.

Although Iraqi soldiers "vastly outnumbered" their opposition in the capital of Anbar province, they quickly withdrew last Sunday without putting up much resistance from the city in Iraq's Sunni heartland, Carter said on CNN's "State of the Union." The interview aired on Sunday.

The Iraqis left behind large numbers of U.S.-supplied vehicles, including several tanks, now presumed to be in Islamic State hands.

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Defense chief: After Ramadi, Iraq's 'will to fight' at issue
An Iraqi government forces member sits in the back of a vehicle in the Jurf al-Sakher area, some 50 kilometres south of Baghdad, to patrol the area from further Islamic State (IS) group advancement, on May 24, 2015. Iraqi forces retook territory from IS group east of Ramadi on May 23, 2015, in their first counterattack since the jihadists' capture of the Anbar provincial capital a week earlier. (Photo credit Haidar Hamdani, AFP/Getty Images)
Iraqi government forces keep position in the Jurf al-Sakher area, some 50 kilometres south of Baghdad, to protect the area from further Islamic State (IS) group advancement, on May 24, 2015. Iraqi forces retook territory from IS group east of Ramadi on May 23, 2015, in their first counterattack since the jihadists' capture of the Anbar provincial capital a week earlier. (Photo credit Haidar Hamdani, AFP/Getty Images)
Iraqi government forces pose for a picture at a checkpoint in the Jurf al-Sakher area, some 50 kilometres south of Baghdad, to protect the area from further Islamic State (IS) group advancement, on May 24, 2015. Iraqi forces retook territory from IS group east of Ramadi on May 23, 2015, in their first counterattack since the jihadists' capture of the Anbar provincial capital a week earlier. (Photo credit Haidar Hamdani, AFP/Getty Images)
An Iraqi government forces member keeps position in the Jurf al-Sakher area, some 50 kilometres south of Baghdad, to protect the area from further Islamic State (IS) group advancement, on May 24, 2015. Iraqi forces retook territory from IS group east of Ramadi on May 23, 2015, in their first counterattack since the jihadists' capture of the Anbar provincial capital a week earlier. (Photo credit Haidar Hamdani, AFP/Getty Images)
Iraqi government forces guard the Jurf al-Sakher area, some 50 kilometres south of Baghdad, to protect the area from further Islamic State (IS) group advancement, on May 24, 2015. Iraqi forces retook territory from IS group east of Ramadi on May 23, 2015, in their first counterattack since the jihadists' capture of the Anbar provincial capital a week earlier. (Photo credit Haidar Hamdani, AFP/Getty Images)
Iraqi government forces keep position in the Jurf al-Sakher area, some 50 kilometres south of Baghdad, to protect the area from further Islamic State (IS) group advancement, on May 24, 2015. Iraqi forces retook territory from IS group east of Ramadi on May 23, 2015, in their first counterattack since the jihadists' capture of the Anbar provincial capital a week earlier. (Photo credit Haidar Hamdani, AFP/Getty Images)
Iraqi government forces walk next to a trench in the Jurf al-Sakher area, some 50 kilometres south of Baghdad, to protect the area from further Islamic State (IS) group advancement, on May 24, 2015. Iraqi forces retook territory from IS group east of Ramadi on May 23, 2015, in their first counterattack since the jihadists' capture of the Anbar provincial capital a week earlier. (Photo credit Haidar Hamdani, AFP/Getty Images)
Displaced Sunni Iraqis, who fled the violence in the Iraqi city of Ramadi, arrive at the outskirts of Baghdad, on April 19, 2015. More than 90,000 people have fled fighting between pro-government forces and the Islamic State jihadist group in the Ramadi area of Iraq's Anbar province, the United Nations said. (Photo credit Ahmad Al-Rubaye, AFP/Getty Images)
Iraqi families, who fled the city of Ramadi after it was seized by Islamic State (IS) group militants, talk to journalists at a camp housing displaced families on May 18, 2015 in Bzeibez, on the southwestern frontier of Baghdad with Anbar province. Shiite militias converged on Ramadi in a bid to recapture it from jihadists who dealt the Iraqi government a stinging blow by overrunning the city in a deadly three-day blitz. (Photo credit Ahmad Al-Rubaye, AFP/Getty Images)
Displaced Sunni Iraqis, who fled the violence in the Iraqi city of Ramadi, arrive at the outskirts of Baghdad, on April 19, 2015. More than 90,000 people have fled fighting between pro-government forces and the Islamic State jihadist group in the Ramadi area of Iraq's Anbar province, the United Nations said. (Photo credit Ahmad Al-Rubaye, AFP/Getty Images)
An Iraqi boy, whose family fled the city of Ramadi after it was seized by Islamic State (IS) group militants, poses inside a tent at a camp housing displaced families on May 18, 2015 in Bzeibez, on the southwestern frontier of Baghdad with Anbar province. Shiite militias converged on Ramadi in a bid to recapture it from jihadists who dealt the Iraqi government a stinging blow by overrunning the city in a deadly three-day blitz. (Photo credit Ahmad Al-Rubaye, AFP/Getty Images)
Thousands of Iraqis fleeing the Iraqi city of Ramadi seized by Daesh militants, cross bridge over Euphrates River to arrive in Baghdad, Iraq on April 17, 2015. Thousands of Iraqis have started to migrate from Ramadi city, where the U.S.-led coalition has intensified its airstrikes against Daesh positions, to Baghdad, said a security official. (Photo by Ali Mohammed/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
Displaced Iraqis from Ramadi cross the Bzebiz bridge after spending the night walking towards Baghdad, as they flee their hometown, 65 km west of Baghdad, Iraq, Saturday, May 16, 2015. Islamic State militants seized the center of Ramadi in western Iraq and raised their black flag over the government compound, local officials said. (AP Photo/Hadi Mizban)
Civilians flee their hometown of Ramadi, the capital of Iraq's Anbar province, 115 kilometers (70 miles) west of Baghdad, Monday, May 18, 2015. Islamic State militants searched door-to-door for policemen and pro-government fighters and threw bodies in the Euphrates River in a bloody purge Monday after capturing the strategic city of Ramadi, their biggest victory since overrunning much of northern and western Iraq last year. (AP Photo)
Iraqi security forces stand guard as residents from the city of Ramadi, who fled their homes on May 16, 2015 as Islamic State (IS) group militants tightened their siege on the last government positions in the capital of Anbar province, a day after they seized the city's government headquarters, wait to cross Bzeibez bridge, on the southwestern frontier of Baghdad with Anbar province, after IS group jihadists took control of all the other routes connecting the province with the Iraqi capital. Taking control of Ramadi would constitute the group's most important victory this year in Iraq, and would give the jihadists control of the capitals of two of its largest provinces. (Photo credit Sabah Arar, AFP/Getty Images)
Residents from the city of Ramadi, who fled their homes on May 16, 2015 as Islamic State (IS) group militants tightened their siege on the last government positions in the capital of Anbar province, a day after they seized the city's government headquarters, walk towards Bzeibez bridge, on the southwestern frontier of Baghdad with Anbar province, after IS group jihadists took control of all the other routes connecting the province with the Iraqi capital. Taking control of Ramadi would constitute the group's most important victory this year in Iraq, and would give the jihadists control of the capitals of two of its largest provinces. (Photo credit Sabah Arar, AFP/Getty Images)
Thousands of Iraqis, fled the Iraqi city of Ramadi seized by Daesh militants, cross bridge over Euphrates River to arrive in Baghdad, Iraq on April 19, 2015. Thousands of Iraqis have started to migrate from Ramadi city, where the U.S.-led coalition has intensified its airstrikes against Daesh positions, to Baghdad, said a security official. (Photo by Visam Avci/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
Iraqi children, fled the Iraqi city of Ramadi seized by Daesh militants, are carried by trailer after they arrive in Baghdad, Iraq on April 19, 2015. Thousands of Iraqis have started to migrate from Ramadi city, where the U.S.-led coalition has intensified its airstrikes against Daesh positions, to Baghdad, said a security official. (Photo by Visam Avci/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
Iraqi children, fled the Iraqi city of Ramadi seized by Daesh militants, are carried by trailer as an Iraqi army soldier passes water them after they arrive in Baghdad, Iraq on April 19, 2015. Thousands of Iraqis have started to migrate from Ramadi city, where the U.S.-led coalition has intensified its airstrikes against Daesh positions, to Baghdad, said a security official. (Photo by Visam Avci/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
An Iraqi kid cries as he and thousands of Iraqis fleeing the Iraqi city of Ramadi seized by Daesh militants, arrive in Baghdad, Iraq on April 17, 2015. Thousands of Iraqis have started to migrate from Ramadi city, where the U.S.-led coalition has intensified its airstrikes against Daesh positions, to Baghdad, said a security official. (Photo by Ali Mohammed/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
An Iraqi woman fleeing the Iraqi city of Ramadi seized by Daesh militants, reacts as she arrives in Baghdad, Iraq on April 17, 2015. Thousands of Iraqis have started to migrate from Ramadi city, where the U.S.-led coalition has intensified its airstrikes against Daesh positions, to Baghdad, said a security official. (Photo by Ali Mohammed/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
BAGHDAD, IRAQ - APRIL 19: Iraqis, fled the Iraqi city of Ramadi seized by Daesh militants, carry their belongings with a trailer after they arrive in Baghdad, Iraq on April 19, 2015. Thousands of Iraqis have started to migrate from Ramadi city, where the U.S.-led coalition has intensified its airstrikes against Daesh positions, to Baghdad, said a security official. (Photo by Visam Avci/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
Thousands of Iraqis, fled the Iraqi city of Ramadi seized by Daesh militants, cross bridge over Euphrates River to arrive in Baghdad, Iraq on April 19, 2015. Thousands of Iraqis have started to migrate from Ramadi city, where the U.S.-led coalition has intensified its airstrikes against Daesh positions, to Baghdad, said a security official. (Photo by Visam Avci/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
Civilians flee their hometown of Ramadi, the capital of Iraq's Anbar province, 115 kilometers (70 miles) west of Baghdad, Monday, May 18, 2015. Islamic State militants searched door-to-door for policemen and pro-government fighters and threw bodies in the Euphrates River in a bloody purge Monday after capturing the strategic city of Ramadi, their biggest victory since overrunning much of northern and western Iraq last year. (AP Photo)
BAGHDAD, IRAQ - APRIL 17: Iraqi Army members take security measures as thousands of Iraqis fleeing the Iraqi city of Ramadi seized by Daesh militants, arrive in Baghdad, Iraq on April 17, 2015. Thousands of Iraqis have started to migrate from Ramadi city, where the U.S.-led coalition has intensified its airstrikes against Daesh positions, to Baghdad, said a security official. (Photo by Ali Mohammed/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
Thousands of Iraqis fleeing the Iraqi city of Ramadi seized by Daesh militants, arrive in Baghdad, Iraq on April 17, 2015. Thousands of Iraqis have started to migrate from Ramadi city, where the U.S.-led coalition has intensified its airstrikes against Daesh positions, to Baghdad, said a security official. (Photo by Ali Mohammed/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
An Iraqi woman fleeing the Iraqi city of Ramadi seized by Daesh militants, reacts as she arrives in Baghdad, Iraq on April 17, 2015. Thousands of Iraqis have started to migrate from Ramadi city, where the U.S.-led coalition has intensified its airstrikes against Daesh positions, to Baghdad, said a security official. (Photo by Ali Mohammed/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
Residents from the city of Ramadi, who fled their homes on May 16, 2015 as Islamic State (IS) group militants tightened their siege on the last government positions in the capital of Anbar province, a day after they seized the city's government headquarters, walk towards Bzeibez bridge on the southwestern frontier of Baghdad with Anbar province, after IS group jihadists took control of all the other routes connecting the province with the Iraqi capital. Taking control of Ramadi would constitute the group's most important victory this year in Iraq, and would give the jihadists control of the capitals of two of its largest provinces.(Photo credit Sabah Arar, AFP/Getty Images)
A member of the Iraqi interior ministry's anti-terrorism forces flashes the V-sign as he stands guard on a vehicle outside the Habaniyah military base, near Anbar province's capital Ramadi, on May 8, 2015. More than 1,000 Sunni fighters from Anbar joined Iraq's Popular Mobilisation force on May 8, 2015 as part of government efforts to make the fight against the Islamic State (IS) group a cross-sectarian drive. (Photo credit Ahmad Al-Rubaye, AFP/Getty Images)
Volunteer Shiite fighters who supports the Iraqi government forces in the combat against the Islamic State (IS) group, hold a black Islamist flag allegedly belonging to IS militants in the village of Fadhiliyah, which pro-government forces retook from IS control the previous month, on the road leading to Fallujah, in Iraq's flashpoint Anbar province, southwest of Baghdad, on February 24, 2015. The government forces lost control of parts of Anbar's provincial capital Ramadi and all of Fallujah at the beginning of 2015 to anti-government fighters. (Photo credit Ahmad Al-Rubaye, AFP/Getty Images)
An Islamic State car bomb explodes at the gate of a government building near the provincial governor's compound in Ramadi, Iraq, on Saturday, May 16, 2015, during heavy fighting that saw most of the city fall to the militants. (Stringer/McClatchy DC/TNS via Getty Images)
Displaced civilians from Ramadi receive humanitarian aid from the United Nations in a camp in the town of Amiriyat al-Fallujah, west of Baghdad, Iraq, Friday, May 22, 2015. The United Nations World Food Program said it is rushing food assistance into Anbar to help tens of thousands of residents who have fled Ramadi after it was taken by Islamic State militant group. (AP Photo/Hadi Mizban)
Displaced civilians from Ramadi receive humanitarian aid from the United Nations in a camp in the town of Amiriyat al-Fallujah, west of Baghdad, Iraq, Friday, May 22, 2015. The United Nations World Food Program said it is rushing food assistance into Anbar to help tens of thousands of residents who have fled Ramadi after it was taken by Islamic State militant group. (AP Photo/Hadi Mizban)
A women who fled Ramadi holds a child in a camp in the town of Amiriyat al-Fallujah, west of Baghdad, Iraq, Friday, May 22, 2015. The United Nations World Food Program said it is rushing food assistance into Anbar to help tens of thousands of residents who have fled Ramadi after it was taken by Islamic State militant group. (AP Photo/Hadi Mizban)
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"What apparently happened is the Iraqi forces just showed no will to fight," Carter said. "They were not outnumbered; in fact, they vastly outnumbered the opposing force. That says to me, and I think to most of us, that we have an issue with the will of the Iraqis to fight ISIL and defend themselves."

The White House declined to comment on Sunday.

Iraqi lawmaker Hakim al-Zamili, the head of the parliamentary defense and security committee, called Carter's comments "unrealistic and baseless," in an interview with The Associated Press.

"The Iraqi army and police did have the will to fight IS group in Ramadi, but these forces lack good equipment, weapons and aerial support," said al-Zamili, a member of the political party headed by radical Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who is stridently anti-American.

American officials say they are sending anti-tank weapons to the Iraqi military. But they also noted that Iraqi forces were not routed from Ramadi- they left of their own accord, frightened in part by a powerful wave of Islamic State group suicide truck bombs, some the size of the one that destroyed the federal building in Oklahoma City two decades ago, said a senior State Department official who spoke to reporters last week under ground rules he not be named.

"The ISF was not driven out of Ramadi," Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said last week. "They drove out of Ramadi."

A senior defense official noted that the troops who fled Ramadi had not been trained by the U.S. or its coalition partners. The official was not authorized to address the matter publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity.

Still, the fall of Ramadi is reviving questions about the effectiveness of the Obama administration's approach in Iraq, a blend of retraining and rebuilding the Iraqi army, prodding the Shiite-dominated government in Baghdad to reconcile with the nation's Sunnis and bombing Islamic State group targets from the air without committing American ground combat troops.

Obama's strategy is predicated on Baghdad granting political concessions to the country's alienated Sunnis, who are a source of personnel and money for the Islamic State group. But there has been little visible progress on that front. Baghdad has continued to work closely with Shiite militias backed by Iran, which have been accused of atrocities against Sunnis, a religious minority that ruled Iraq for centuries until Saddam Hussein fell from power.

The U.S. has sought to reach out on its own to Sunni tribes and is training some Sunni fighters, but those efforts have been limited by the small number of American troops on the ground.

Carter defended the use of U.S. airstrikes, but he said they are not a replacement for Iraqi ground forces willing to defend their country.

"We can participate in the defeat of ISIL," he said. "But we can't make Iraq ... a decent place for people to live - we can't sustain the victory, only the Iraqis can do that and, in particular in this case, the Sunni tribes to the West."

American intelligence officials have assessed for some time that Iraq is unlikely ever again to function as the multi-ethnic nation-state it once was, and that any future political arrangement would have to grant significant local autonomy to the three main groups- Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds. But the Obama administration has continued to pursue a "one Iraq" policy, routing all assistance through Baghdad.

Over the past year defeated Iraq security forces have repeatedly left U.S.-supplied military equipment on the battlefield, which the U.S. has targeted in subsequent airstrikes against Islamic State forces. The Pentagon this past week estimated that when Iraqi troops abandoned Ramadi, they left behind a half-dozen tanks, a similar number of artillery pieces, a larger number of armored personnel carriers and about 100 wheeled vehicles like Humvees.

The list of air strikes overnight in Iraq announced by the Pentagon on Sunday included four near Ramadi that destroyed 19 armored vehicles. It was unclear whether any of those had been recently abandoned by the Iraqi army.

U.S. lawmakers from both parties criticized the administration's strategy Sunday, urging a more aggressive posture.

Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, D-Hawaii, an Iraq war veteran, cast doubt on the U.S. preference to deal only with the Shiite-dominated government in Baghdad, calling instead for directly arming both the Kurds in the north and Sunni tribes that have asked for help in beating back the Islamic State group. She criticized Baghdad's close links with Iran-backed Shiite militias that have declared themselves enemies of the United States.

Republican Sen. John McCain, who chairs the Armed Services Committee, called for thousands of U.S. troops on the ground in Iraq, including spotters who can better direct air strikes.

"There is no strategy," McCain said.

Even Obama administration allies were urging the president to do more.

"I think there is a major hesitation to get too deeply involved in Iraq again," said Michele Flournoy, a former senior Obama administration defense official. But, she said, "This is a terrorist problem that affects us and we have to take a more forward leaning posture."

Gabbard and Flournoy spoke on CNN's "State of the Union;" McCain appeared on CBS' "Face the Nation."


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