24 May 2015, BAGHDAD/BEIRUT (TSR-Reuters) – Iraqi forces recaptured territory from advancing IS fighters near the recently-fallen city of Ramadi on Sunday, while in Syria the government said the fighters 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 US-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, US Defence 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 programme. “They vastly outnumbered the opposing force, and yet they withdrew from the site.”
Iraq’s government, along with militiamen and locally-recruited tribal fighters, launched a counter-offensive on Saturday, a week after losing Ramadi.
A police major and a pro-government tribal fighter in the area said they had retaken the town of Husaiba al Sharqiya, about 10 km 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 IS.
“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 IS positions on the opposite bank of the Euphrates river, where the fighters were launching mortars and sniper fire to prevent the pro-government forces advancing, Fahdawi and the police major said.
Days after taking Ramadi, IS also defeated forces of the Syrian government of President Bashar al Assad to capture Palmyra, home to 50,000 people and site of some of the world’s most extensive and best-preserved Roman ruins.
The fighters have killed at least 400 people, including women and children in Palmyra since capturing the ancient Syrian city four days ago, Syrian state media said on Sunday.
It was not immediately possible to verify that account, but it was consistent with reports by activists that the fighters had carried out executions, leaving hundreds of bodies in the streets.
The fighters have proclaimed a caliphate to rule over all Muslims from territory they hold in both Syria and Iraq.
They have a history of carrying out mass killings in towns and cities they capture, and of dynamiting and bulldozing ancient monuments, which they consider evidence of paganism. Many of those killed were state employees, including the head of the nursing department at the hospital and all her family members.