President Barack Obama said in an interview published Thursday that “I don’t think we’re losing” to ISIS, despite its capture of an Iraqi city last week and renewed questions about the state of the Iraqi military.
His interview with The Atlantic was published hours after ISIS claimed to have captured the ancient Syrian city of Palmyra, a victory that one monitoring group said gave ISIS control of half the country.
And U.S. officials told NBC News that In Ramadi, Iraq, the city captured by the militants last weekend, ISIS fighters are digging trenches, building berms and steeling themselves for an Iraqi military push to retake the city.
Obama told The Atlantic that the fall of Ramadi was “a tactical setback,” but he said the city had been vulnerable for a long time because it was protected by Iraqi security forces that the United States had not trained or reinforced.
He stressed progress in other parts of the country. But he acknowledged that the training and commitment of Iraqi forces must be increased.
“So it is a source of concern,” he said. “We’re eight months into what we’ve always anticipated to be a multi-year campaign, and I think Prime Minister (Haider) Abadi recognizes many of these problems, but they’re going to have to be addressed.”
Asked a question circulating in the early presidential campaign — whether the war in Iraq was itself a mistake — Obama said:
I’m very clear on the lessons of Iraq. I think it was a mistake for us to go in in the first place, despite the incredible efforts that were made by our men and women in uniform. Despite that error, those sacrifices allowed the Iraqis to take back their country. That opportunity was squandered by Prime Minister Maliki and the unwillingness to reach out effectively to the Sunni and Kurdish populations.
But today the question is not whether or not we are sending in contingents of U.S. ground troops. Today the question is: How do we find effective partners to govern in those parts of Iraq that right now are ungovernable and effectively defeat ISIL, not just in Iraq but in Syria?
In Ramadi, U.S. officials said it would take a week or more for the 7,000 Iraqi forces who fled last weekend to regroup and prepare for a counterassault.
The officials also said that the first group of 4,000 heavily armed Shiite militiamen has come forward and pledged to follow the orders of the Iraqi military in any attempt to retake Ramadi.
The ISIS capture of Ramadi, the capital of Anbar province, was a humiliating defeat for the Iraqi military after a string of victories.
U.S. officials also said that Um Sayyaf — the wife of an ISIS financier shot and killed in a U.S. raid in Syria last week — has provided information under interrogation about ISIS leaders and operations. They said American intelligence is trying to verify it.
U.S. officials also said that ISIS documents, computers and cellphones seized during the raid have produced “valuable information” about ISIS leaders and operations.
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