WASHINGTON – A multi-directional round of finger-pointing has begun following recent stunning military gains by Islamic State militants, underscoring the old adage about failure being an orphan.
The U.S., the Iraqi government and Iranian-backed militias have all blamed each other after a tiny group of Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant fighters routed a far larger military force to consolidate their hold over a western Iraqi province.
The Canadian government has waded carefully into the debate, acknowledging failures by the Iraqi military, but also emphasizing the overall positives: that ISIL militants have lost control of 25 to 30 per cent of their previously held territory.
What’s prompted the recent second-guessing is news that an Iraqi military unit dropped its weapons and fled the city of Ramadi despite outnumbering the rebels 40 to 1, by some estimates.
“The Iraqi forces just showed no will to fight. They were not outnumbered,” U.S. Defence Secretary Ashton Carter said in a weekend CNN interview.
“Now, we can give them training, we can give them equipment; we obviously can’t give them the will to fight.”
That appeared to have offended some Iraqis.
The head of the country’s parliamentary defence committee said the real problem was a lack of American support.
“These forces lack good equipment, weapons and aerial support,” Hakim al-Zamili told the Associated Press.
That criticism was also evident in a report in which the Iraqi military expressed frustration over American prudence in attacking aerial targets. According to the New York Times, seven buildings in downtown Raqqa in eastern Syria have been identified as the main headquarters of the Islamic State.
They haven’t been struck because of fears of civilian casualties, the newspaper reported.
Speaking to reporters in Ottawa, Canada’s Defence Minister Jason Kenney touched upon that desire to limit casualties. Canadian special forces have been helping pinpoint targets for airstrikes.
Kenney said there are robust protocols in place to avoid killing civilians.
“There is a central command operation that proposes targets to various coalition members, but then we do our own independent analysis including a legal analysis to try to be triply sure that we’re not accepting unacceptable risk with respect to civilian casualties.”
Kenney agreed with the American assessment of the Iraqi failures in Ramadi, but he was less critical: He praised their work in regaining territory over the last six months.
The bulk of those gains have come in the country’s Kurdish northeast. It’s the failures in the Sunni-populated west, near the Syrian border, that have prompted the second-guessing.
There’s been debate about what weapons to provide, how to improve on-the-ground intelligence for airstrikes and how to deal with Shia militias.
The White House acknowledged the weapons deficit.
It’s sending 2,000 anti-tank rockets that might have made a difference in Ramadi. The Iraqi retreat came after a series of suicide-vehicle attacks. White House spokesman Josh Earnest said those AT-4 rockets could help blast explosives-rigged cars before they reach their targets.
Then there’s the sectarian issue.
Wariness about Iranian-backed militias manifested itself Tuesday in an unusual way: a debate over a name. The Shia militias have had success against ISIL, but have also horrified outside observers with their brutality.
On Tuesday, a Pentagon spokesman Tuesday called it “unhelpful” that a militia participating in a government effort to retake Anbar province named itself “I Am Here, Hussein,” after a grandson of the Prophet Muhammad especially revered in the Shia sect.
A Shia militia leader also unloaded on the U.S. in a statement this week on Al-Ahad TV. Qais al-Khazali blasted the Americans for trying to dictate the terms of another country’s conflict.
He ridiculed the U.S. ambassador for saying that Shia militias would have to operate under Iraqi government forces: “He had the audacity to say this,” al-Khazali said, in remarks translated by the Middle East Media Research Institute.
“It is as if you own this country and we are the foreigners. … We are the ones with the right to set conditions for you.”