Obama eyes sped up training, weapons for Iraqi tribes after Ramadi rout

Obama eyes sped up training, weapons for Iraqi tribes after Ramadi rout
US President Barack Obama
PHOTO: Reuters

WASHINGTON - US President Barack Obama weighed faster training and arms supplies for Iraqi tribes Tuesday, while eying a rapid counteroffensive to retake Ramadi from the Islamic State group.

"We are looking at how best to support local ground forces in Anbar" province, National Security Council spokesman Alistair Baskey told AFP, "including accelerating the training and equipping of local tribes and supporting an Iraqi-led operation to retake Ramadi."

Ramadi -- a city in Iraq's Sunni heartland just 90 minutes' drive away from the capital Baghdad -- was overrun by jihadists on Sunday.

The audacious military victory was a major blow in the battle against the IS group, calling into question Obama's strategy in Iraq and the authority of his ally, Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi.

The White House has described the loss of Ramadi as a "setback" but played down suggestions that the war is being lost.

"Are we going to light our hair on fire every time that there is a setback in the campaign?" asked White House spokesman Josh Earnest.

Obama huddled with his secretaries of State, Defence as well as National Security Advisor Susan Rice and Central Intelligence Agency chief John Brennan to plot the way forward.

'No formal strategy review'

"There is no formal strategy review," said Baskey, indicating that the pace rather than type of assistance to Sunni tribes was in question.

A more detailed announcement could come within days.

Obama has repeatedly ruled out sending vast numbers of US troops back to the theatre of a bloody and unpopular nine-year war that he vowed to end.

Instead, he has vowed to support Iraq's struggling army and hit IS from the air.

There has also been support for disparate Iraqi paramilitary groups that have proven a more potent fighting force than army or police regulars, though not without controversy.

Both Washington and Baghdad had been uneasy about arms flowing directly to Kurdish peshmerga fighters in the north, fearing those arms could later be used in the battle for independence.

Meanwhile, many of the Shiite groups that helped retake Tikrit are armed and trained by Iran and their role in campaigns in overwhelmingly Sunni Anbar could risk reigniting a sectarian bloodbath.

The White House wants to see those groups firmly under the command and control of the Iraqi military, but is also turning to Sunni tribes, which helped turn the tide of America's own war in Iraq through the "Sunni Awakening."

But reeling from the worst setback since IS grabbed swathes of territory in June last year, Abadi called in the Shiite-dominated Popular Mobilization units (Hashed al-Shaabi).

Iraq's army and allied paramilitary forces massed around Ramadi, meanwhile, looking for swift action to recapture the city from IS before it builds up defences.

"The Iraqi government needs to launch an immediate counteroffensive before (IS) can consolidate its power, both for symbolic reasons and because of Ramadi's proximity to Baghdad," said Michael Knights of the Washington Institute.

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