Iraqi forces recaptured territory from advancing Islamic State militants near the recently-fallen city of Ramadi on Sunday, while in Syria the government said the Islamists had killed hundreds of people since capturing the town of Palmyra.
The fall of Ramadi and Palmyra, on opposite ends of the vast territory controlled by Islamic State fighters, were the militant group’s biggest successes since a U.S.-led coalition launched an air war to stop them last year.
The near simultaneous victories against the Iraqi and Syrian armies have forced Washington to examine its strategy, which involves bombing from the air but leaving fighting on the ground to local forces in both countries.
In a sharp criticism of Washington’s ally, U.S. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter accused Iraq’s army of abandoning Ramadi, a provincial capital west of Baghdad, to a much smaller enemy force.
“The Iraqi forces just showed no will to fight,” he told CNN’s State of the Union program. “They vastly outnumbered the opposing force, and yet they withdrew from the site.”
Iraq’s government, along with Iran-backed Shi’ite militiamen and locally-recruited Sunni tribal fighters, launched a counter-offensive on Saturday, a week after losing Ramadi. A police major and a pro-government Sunni tribal fighter in the area said they had retaken the town of Husaiba al-Sharqiya, about 10 km (6 miles) east of Ramadi.
“Today we regained control over Husaiba and are laying plans to make more advances to push back Daesh fighters further,” said local tribal leader Amir al-Fahdawi, using an Arabic acronym for Islamic State, also known in English as ISIS or ISIL.
“The morale of the (pro-government) fighters is high after the arrival of reinforcements and loads of ammunition,” Fahdawi said. “Today’s advance will speed up the clock for a major advance to regain control of Ramadi.”
Planes were bombing Islamic State positions on the opposite bank of the Euphrates river, where the militants were launching mortars and sniper fire to prevent the pro-government forces advancing, Fahdawi and the police major said.