Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey said U.S. and Iraqi forces are working hard to protect Ramadi, once considered one of the most dangerous cities in which American forces fought eight years ago. Should Islamic State fighters take it over, the U.S. and Iraq should fight to get it back, but losing it would not be a strategic defeat for the Iraqis, he said.
“The city itself is not symbolic in any way,” Dempsey said Thursday at the Pentagon. “It’s not been declared, you know, part of the caliphate on one hand or central to the future of Iraq.”
Islamic State, or ISIS, fighters advanced across Anbar this week and were pushing ever closer to Ramadi. The U.S. and Iraqis would want to take Ramadi back from ISIS if it does fall, Dempsey said. “I would much rather that Ramadi not fall but it won’t be the end of a campaign should it fall.”
Dempsey appeared at Defense Secretary Ash Carter’s first formal press briefing at the Pentagon since taking office nearly two months ago.
During the Iraq war, the U.S. military fought costly battles in Anbar province, and to the Marines who fought there it was a strategic prize as Anbar’s largest city and provincial capital.
Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi and other Iraqi officials were in Washington this week discussing the fight against the ISIS and U.S. humanitarian and military support for their government. U.S. officials want Iraqis to reclaim those parts of Anbar by “connecting the ink blots” between pockets of stability and government control and those areas controlled by the Islamic State. Dempsey said the Iraqis agreed this week that taking back Anbar would become a new priority.
But Ramadi is in contrast to the city of Beiji, north of Baghdad, where a strategic oil refinery is located, Dempsey said. While the U.S. is supporting Iraqi forces in both Beiji and Ramadi, with airstrikes, intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance and other support, Dempsey made it clear that Beiji is the more critical of the two cities.
“Beiji is a little different,” Dempsey said. “Once the Iraqis have full control of Beiji, they will have control of their oil infrastructure, both north and south and deny [ISIS] the ability to generate revenue through oil.” Dempsey said the oil refinery in Beiji is currently not at risk by Islamic fighters.
Abadi also told reporters Wednesday in Washington that Saudi Arabia’s airstrike campaign against Shiite-based Houthi fighters in Yemen was not helpful because it could trigger a broader sectarian war. Abadi indicated that U.S. officials, who have provided support to Saudi Arabia against Houthi fighters in Yemen, agreed with his assessment, though White House officials denied that.
“The objective there is to restore a political process there in which a legitimate government can be established in Yemen and things can settle down there,” Carter said. “That’s good for the people of Yemen, first and foremost; it’s good for Saudi Arabia that doesn’t need this on its Southern border; and… it’s good for us, among other reasons, because of AQAP’s presence in Yemen.”