U.S.: Fall of Ramadi wouldn't doom campaign to push out ISIS

Willie Grace | 4/17/2015, 1:37 p.m.
While not home to critical infrastructure like the massive oil refinery in Baiji, also under ISIS assault, Ramadi is just ...

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- With the Iraqi city of Ramadi under relentless assault from ISIS, the top U.S. military official said the fall of the city would not mark a turning point in the ongoing military campaign against the terror group.

"I would much rather that Ramadi not fall, but it won't be the end of the campaign should it fall," Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Martin Dempsey told reporters at the Pentagon Thursday, referring to U.S.-led attacks in coordination with the Iraqi army to beat back the terror organization. "We've got to get it back."

But if Ramadi does fall, the loss of the city would not be without its challenges. Despite its proximity to the capital, the main highway that goes from Baghdad to Jordan runs directly through Ramadi. U.S. forces are also training Iraqi forces at the al-Asad air base in the same province as Ramadi.

While not home to critical infrastructure like the massive oil refinery in Baiji, also under ISIS assault, Ramadi is just 70 miles to the west of Baghdad, and in the middle of Iraq's Sunni heartland.

Despite its location, Dempsey played down the role of Ramadi within the Iraqi state, characterizing it as "not symbolic in any way" primarily because ISIS has not formally declared it as a part of the Islamic Caliphate it seeks to establish across areas in Iraq and Syria. He also said the city was not "central to the future of Iraq."

Dempsey referred to the battle of Baiji as a "more strategic target" because of it's the significant role the refinery there plays in the Iraqi economy.

On Friday, Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, blasted Dempsey's comments as a "gross mischaracterization."

"Disregarding the strategic importance of Ramadi is a denial of reality and an insult to the families of hundreds of brave young Americans who were killed and wounded during the Surge fighting to free Ramadi from the grip of Al-Qaeda," McCain said in a written statement released by his office.

McCain, using a different name for ISIS, charged that the "current U.S. strategy is to defend an oil refinery in Baiji, but abandon the capital of pivotal Anbar province to ISIL."

Military officials acknowledge Iraqi forces may ultimately retreat from the city if additional reinforcements from the Iraqi military are not sufficient, but they paint a picture of improving trend lines in the campaign overall. The recent Iraqi-led military campaign in Tikrit has pushed ISIS out from one of its stronghold's north of Baghdad, and the terror group hasn't been able to marshal large forces to march on territory, much like the group did last year when it conquered Mosul, Iraq's second largest city, as the U.S.-led coalition's air campaign continues.

Officials say it is a multi-sectarian Iraqi force made up of Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds that will be needed to ultimately roll back the gains ISIS has made, which was a critical point stressed this week in Washington to the visiting Iraqi prime minister and defense minister.