Islamic State apparently has captured the ancient Syrian city of Palmyra, raising fears of another wave of destruction of irreplaceable Muslim cultural treasures.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says Syrian forces had withdrawn from nearly the entire city by late Wednesday after heavy fighting with the militants in the city's north.
Palmyra's 2,000-year-old ruins are a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Syrian antiquities director Maamoun Abdulkarim said hundreds of statues have been removed from the city and are all now in safe places.
But there are other pieces and large monuments that cannot be moved. Syrian and U.N. officials are appealing to the world to help protect these sites from Islamic State militants, who destroyed ancient artifacts inside Iraq earlier this year.
State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said Wednesday U.S. officials are concerned and hope the Palmyra sites are not damaged. But she said she is unsure what more can be done at this point.
Capture of Ramadi
The siege of Palmyra comes just days after Islamic State fighters captured Iraq's western city of Ramadi.
President Barack Obama has reaffirmed the U.S. government's support for Iraq's prime minister and the decision to plan an operation to retake control of the city, as Iraqi forces and Shi'ite militias surround the western city for a potential recapture.
The troops and militias have had prior success in recapturing Tikrit, but Pentagon spokesman Colonel Steve Warren said Tuesday that taking back Ramadi is more challenging given that Iraqi forces abandoned a vast array of American military equipment when they fled the city.
A senior State Department official Wednesday echoed that sentiment.
"It is a very serious situation. Nobody is kidding themselves about what ISIL was able to pull off last week," the official told reporters. "We have been working to consolidate the units that retreated from Ramadi and we think that over the last 96 hours, there has been a consolidation, which is positive."
Counter-attack in works
The official said the U.S. has been working "around the clock" with Iraqis to hold their lines, consolidate and think about how to counter-attack.
Meanwhile, Ben Connable, a regional analyst at RAND Corporation, told VOA on Wednesday that leaving behind the tanks, personnel carriers and artillery made the situation "much worse."
"That's exactly how the Islamic State acquires most of it's equipment. It also is a one-for-one tradeoff – clearly the Iraqi security forces are now that much weaker because they don't have that equipment, Connable said.
"It wasn't all that clear in the first place whether or not they were capable of using it or maintaining it, but the fact that it is now in the hands of the Islamic State is extremely troubling," he added.
Islamic State fighters seized Ramadi on Sunday after several days of fighting that authorities said left 500 people dead.
Since then, the routed Iraqi troops have retreated east of the city, while militias answered the call of Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi to join the government forces and mass near Ramadi in preparation for a potential operation.
Connable said the militias will face the challenge of not knowing the terrain in Ramadi well, and that pro-government forces will need to launch their campaign soon.
"They need to move in quickly if they're going to move in. They need to ensure that they are able to penetrate deep enough into the city to obtain a foothold before the Islamic State is able to plant improvised explosive devices around the city as they did in Tikrit and as they have done in Mosul," he said.
The Islamic State group's takeover of Ramadi has led to sharp criticism of Obama's policy in the Iraqi conflict, which includes airstrikes on the insurgents, but no commitment of U.S. ground troops to assist the Iraqis.
"The president's plan isn't working," said House Speaker John Boehner, leader of the Republican-controlled House of Representatives. "It's time for him to come up with overarching strategy to defeat the ongoing terrorist threat."
But White House spokesman Josh Earnest blamed Congress for not giving Obama the new military authorization he asked for to wage war against the Islamic State.
"At some point, somebody in Congress needs to assume responsibility for this and not just complain about it the whole time," Earnest said.
Pentagon spokesman Warren said there is plenty of blame for the Islamic State capture of Ramadi.
"The fall of Ramadi was a failure of a lot of things," Warren said. "Leadership being one of them, tactics being one of them. War is a fluid thing. The enemy does get a vote."
Pam Dockins contributed to this report from the State Department.