Iraqi government forces and local tribal fighters drive on the highway between the city of Ramadi and the town of Rutba as they take part in an operation to retake Rutba from the Islamic State jihadist group on May 16, 2016 (Photo: AFP)
Bolstered by U.S. airstrikes, Iraqi ground forces have recaptured the southwestern town of Rutba after Islamic State fighters who had occupied the town for nearly two years fled or put up only light resistance, U.S. military officers said Friday.
Army Lt. Gen. Sean MacFarland, the top U.S. commander in Baghdad, told reporters Friday that it was an important victory for the Iraqi security forces, even though Rutba is a small town.
MacFarland said that taking Rutba from IS will allow the reopening of the main road from Amman to Baghdad, which he said is a significant economic lifeline for Iraq.
"Although it's a small town, it's an important success for the Iraqi security forces," he said.
Another U.S. officer, Marine Brig. Gen. Bill Mullen, said in a separate interview that the decisive action in Rutba was U.S. airstrikes outside the town that seemed to persuade the Islamic State fighters to flee rather than put up substantial resistance. He said there were an estimated "couple of hundred" IS fighters in Rutba prior to the Iraqi assault and that by the time the Iraqis arrived all but about 30 had fled north to the city of al-Qaim or across the border into Syria.
Col. Steve Warren, spokesman for the U.S. military command in Baghdad, said the Iraqis had sent about 1,000 troops to Rutba. They were a combination of federal police, Sunni tribal fighters, border security forces and members of the Counter-Terrorism Force.
Warren said the Islamic State had used Rutba as a staging area for weaponry and foreign fighters flowing into Iraq.
Beyond the recapturing of Rutba, U.S. officials were focused mainly on preparing Iraqi security forces for an assault on Mosul, which is the Islamic State's main stronghold in Iraq.
MacFarland said the U.S. is pushing the Iraqis to prepare for that step but does not want to move faster than is prudent, given the Iraqis' military and political limitations.
"We don't want to rush them out there and achieve fragile victories," MacFarland told a small group of reporters traveling with Army Gen. Joseph Votel, who was in Iraq on Friday to consult with MacFarland and other U.S. commanders. "We want to make sure that their victories are irreversible."
Asked whether he believes the assault phase of the Mosul operation will be launched before the end of this year, MacFarland said, "I really am reluctant to make predictions."
One factor weighing on the Iraqi campaign is the political paralysis that has gripped the government in Baghdad. Also, the Islamic State has launched a series of deadly attacks in the capital, including suicide car bombings, apparently with the aim of sowing further discord within the government and causing the government to pull some of its forces away from Mosul to help defend Baghdad.
"It's important to make sure that we help keep Baghdad secure," MacFarland said. "It's the center of gravity here. One of the ways we're trying to help the Iraqi security forces is to do that in the most efficient way possible so that it (Baghdad) doesn't become kind of a sinkhole for all of the Iraqi security forces."
He said that "for the most part," Iraqi's political leaders are resisting what he called the temptation to bring significant numbers of Iraqi forces back into the Baghdad area. Already, about half of the Iraqi army is deployed in or near Baghdad.
MacFarland described an Iraqi military leadership of vastly different levels of competence.
"I've seen some pretty dang good leaders actually, surprisingly good, out there in some of the units that I've talked to," he said. Some seem almost as good as the officers in his own forces, he said.
He added: "Other times you look at them and say, 'Eh, this guy may not be cutting it.'"