WASHINGTON - The United States is promising to help Iraqi forces retake Ramadi from the Islamic State militant group, though officials worry the looming battles could play to the terror group’s advantage, win or lose.
Just days after saying Islamic State fighters were on the defensive across Iraq, the U.S. military Monday tried to downplay Ramadi’s fall, portraying it as a part of the ebb and flow of a “complex, bloody fight.”
“This is something that we’ve known is a possibility for some time,” Pentagon spokesman Col. Steve Warren said. “What this is means is that we now have to, along with our Iraqi partners, retake Ramadi.”
“There is no denying that this is indeed a setback,” White House spokesman Eric Schultz told reporters traveling with U.S. President Barack Obama Monday. “There is also no denying that we will help the Iraqis take back Ramadi.”
No timeline, US role
The U.S. refused to give any timeline for how long it would take to reclaim the city, 125 kilometers west of the Iraqi capital of Baghdad, calling it an Iraqi decision, while the Pentagon emphasized the U.S. role would be limited to supplying air power to back-up Iraqi operations on the ground.
Officials said coalition aircraft were already seeking Islamic State targets in and around Ramadi, carrying out eight strikes in a 24-hour period ending Monday, while noting 32 such strikes had been carried out over the past three weeks.
WATCH: Raw video footage from Ramadi
Still, U.S. defense officials warned the prospects of using air power to push back Islamic State forces from Ramadi would be difficult, describing the urban battlefield as one that creates unique challenges.
There are also questions about the ability of the Iraqi Security Force.
A senior U.S. military official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told VOA early indications were that Iraqi forces fled Ramadi despite having superior numbers.
And there have been ongoing concerns about Iraq’s inability to create “uninterrupted lines of defense” that would connect the patchwork of Iraqi forces positioned across Al-Anbar province.
For now, many of the Iraqi forces that fled Ramadi have regrouped on the city's eastern edge in what several sources tell VOA is an attempt to block any Islamic State advance toward Baghdad.
At the same time, Shi'ite militias, some loyal to the Iraqi government and others loyal to Iran, have been converging on the outskirts of Ramadi, seeming to answer a call for support from Iraqi Prime Minster Haider al-Abadi, who met Monday with Iranian Defense Minister Gen. Hossein Dehghan.
It is the presence of those militia, many of them the same ones that fought to reclaim Tikrit last month, that have U.S. intelligence officials worried.
“It would not be surprising if ISIL sought to spotlight Shia forces fighting in the Ramadi area in an effort to inflame sectarian tensions, or question Baghdad’s intentions,” an intelligence official told VOA, using an acronym for the Islamic State group.
The official also said it would not be surprising for Islamic State fighters “to mount a major attack or propaganda blitz to demonstrate its capabilities and attract additional recruits.”
IS thrives on chaos
Yet, Michael Pregent, a former U.S. intelligence officer and military adviser in Iraq, said developments in Ramadi and the arrival of the Iranian-backed Shi’ite militias could be setting the stage for the type of chaos on which the Islamic State group thrives.
“The closer ISIS pushes to Baghdad, the more Baghdad looks sectarian and not supporting Sunnis,” Pregent said, using a different acronym for the group. “This has the potential to turn into Sunni armed resistance, not against ISIS but Sunni armed resistance against its government and Shia militias, but not aligned to ISIS.
“Unless Baghdad generates a Sunni-heavy force to fight ISIS now, I see it ceding western Baghdad to the traditional Sunni neighborhoods that al-Qaida had a lot of success in during 2005-2006, and this time there are not 120,000 Americans to stop it,” he said.
Concerns about the potential for aggravated sectarian strife also reach to the top echelons of the Pentagon, where the top U.S. military officer called the situation in Ramadi “a serious setback.”
“Reducing sectarian tensions and preparing for reconstruction will continue to challenge the government of Iraq," said Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey.
At least initially, the Shi’ite militias appear to have some backing from Sunni leaders on Anbar’s provincial council. Still, the presence of militias loyal to Iran could further complicate efforts to retake Ramadi, as the U.S. refused to use air power in Tikrit until those units were ordered back from the front.
In the meantime, the head of the Anbar provincial council, Sabah Karhout Al Helbusi, told VOA's Kurdish service Monday that a "humanitarian catastrophe" was under way in the city.
Local officials said three days of fighting left 500 people dead in Ramadi while according to the United Nations, 6,500 families have been displaced, with most fleeing eastward toward Fallujah and Khalidiyah.
Spokesman Farhan Haq said U.N. agencies and others were delivering aid, including mobile medical units.
U.S. military officials painted an even bleaker picture for those Iraqis who remain trapped in Ramadi.
“We’ve seen executions. We’ve seen murder. We’ve seen trademark ISIL barbarity," said Pentagon spokesman Col. Steve Warren.