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Fall Of Ramadi Sparks New Criticism Over U.S. Strategy In Iraq

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

We're joined now by NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman. And Tom, we just heard in Alice's report that Shiite militias are the units looking to help retake the city of Ramadi. Is that something the U.S. government would support?

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Well, Robert, a White House spokesman said today that the U.S. government would support these militias helping retake the city as long as they came under the Iraqi government control. That's the important point they are making. Of course some of these Shiite militias are linked to Iran. That's the major concern of the White House. And as Alice said, now you have militia members streaming into Anbar, massing for an assault. We're told as many as 3,000 are there now with more on the way.

SIEGEL: How did things get to this point, Tom? Does the fall of Ramadi signal some bigger failure with U.S. strategy in Iraq?

BOWMAN: Well, the U.S. strategy is this. Rely on local ground forces and with help from American airstrikes. The problem with that is the local force, the Iraqi Army, has just fallen apart. They fell apart last year in the city of Mosul. They couldn't retake the city of Tikrit in March without militia help there, and now the Iraqi Army has fled Ramadi. There's a pattern here with this proxy force. And the Pentagon said today the Iraqi army left behind in Ramadi hundreds of U.S.-provided Humvees, a half-dozen tanks, personnel carriers, artillery pieces. All of that, Robert, is now in the hands of ISIS.

SIEGEL: You mentioned the other part of the U.S. approach is the use of air power. That wasn't enough to stop ISIS here?

BOWMAN: Well, there have been thousands of airstrikes since last summer, but ISIS is still on the move in places and at least digging in in other places. Now, thousands of airstrikes sounds like a lot, but more and more pilots are saying they could do a lot more airstrikes, but they are being constrained. They say they have to wait hours sometimes for an approval for a target. A general has to sign off on it, and these pilots say those delays are allowing ISIS fighters to escape. Now here's an email from one pilot I received. Quote, "I've never been more frustrated in my career. I've spent hours looking through my targeting pod screen watching ISIS perpetrate their acts until my eyes bleed. We have not taken the fight to these guys."

SIEGEL: And the constraints, that pilot is complaining about why?

BOWMAN: Well, there are legitimate concerns at the White House that you don't want to hit the wrong target, kill civilians, you know, hit Iraqi troops and get in a friendly fire situation. The U.S. doesn't want that to happen, obviously, for humanitarian reasons. They also don't want ISIS to use it as a propaganda tool. But a growing number of pilots and retired officers I speak with say, listen, there's too much caution, too much micromanaging, and that's hurting the fight.

SIEGEL: By the way, when that pilot speaks of having to get approval from a general, we assume a U.S. general?

BOWMAN: Absolutely, yeah.

SIEGEL: Or an Iraqi general?

BOWMAN: Right, there are too many job chains to get approval for a strike.

SIEGEL: OK. Thanks, Tom.

BOWMAN: You're welcome.

SIEGEL: That's NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.