After capturing the capital city of a major Iraqi region, ISIS is claiming one of its biggest victories.

According to local officials, Islamic State militants likely killed up to 500 people in the city of Ramadi, and forced 8,000 to flee from their homes…

“It’s a pretty significant setback,” Steve Bucci of the Heritage Foundation told Yahoo’s Bianna Golodryga on Monday.

Bucci says that American aid to the Iraqi military in an attempt to save the city was “anemic” and that more air strikes and special forces would have been needed.

The last defenses in Ramadi collapsed Sunday during a chaotic retreat, in which security forces abandoned about 60 military vehicles such as military-grade Humvees, said Col. Nasser al-Alwani of the Ramadi police force.

About half of the abandoned vehicles were sent by the U.S.-backed government on Saturday to reinforce the neighborhood, he added.

The force of about 400 police officers under Alwani’s command also retreated in their vehicles to the east, he said. Islamic State fighters besieged them on every road, forcing them to abandon the vehicles and escape on foot. A military convoy from the
Habbaniyah air base later retrieved the fleeing Iraqi forces, he added.

“The retreat was complete chaos. There was no organization,” Alwani said, describing attacks by “hundreds” of Islamic State militants.

Just two days after assaulting and taking control of Ramadi’s government center, the Islamic State launched a coordinated suicide attack against the Anbar Operations Command headquarters, a corps-level command that is located in northwestern Ramadi. At least three suicide bombers opened the fighting by detonating their explosives at the gates of the headquarters, killing five Iraqi soldiers, according to The Associate Press. The suicide assault was followed by a wave of Islamic State fighters.

Iraqi troops then retreated from the command center, according to Jean-Marc Mojon, AFP’s bureau chief in Iraq…

After the fall of the Anbar Operations Command, unconfirmed reports indicate that Iraqi forces in the Fallujah-Ramadi corridor are in full retreat. Several videos released by unofficial Islamic State outlets claim to show Iraqi security forces withdrawing from Habbaniyah and Khaladiyah. The authenticity of the videos cannot be independently confirmed by The Long War Journal.

If the reports that the Iraqi military is pulling out of Habbaniyah and Khaladiyah, then the Islamic State is in effective control of all of Anbar provinces’ major cities and towns from Fallujah to Al Qaim.

The government had vowed to liberate Anbar after routing the militants from the city of Tikrit last month. But the security forces, which partly disintegrated under an IS onslaught last June, have struggled to gain traction in the vast desert province.

An officer who withdrew from the besieged army base said the militants were urging them via loudspeaker to discard their weapons, promising to show mercy in return…

Earlier on Sunday, Anbar provincial council member Athal Fahdawi described the situation in Ramadi as “total collapse”.

This Department of Defense news article … on the status of the fight against the Islamic State couldn’t have been more poorly timed.

Published on May 15, the same day that the Islamic State overran the government center in Ramadi, the report provides a pollyannaish view from Brigadier General Thomas D. Weidley of the US military’s air campaign and the Iraqi military’s fight against the Islamic State…

Weidley described Ramadi as “contested” and claimed that Iraqi forces repelled most attacks in the city when in reality the Islamic State took control of the government center and most neighborhoods in Ramadi by May 15…

Ironically, Weidley is detailing just how anemic and ineffective the US air campaign has been in both Anbar province and Baiji. Despite the estimated 420 strikes in the Ramadi-Fallujah area and 330 more in Baiji, the Islamic State was able to organize its assault forces, advance, and overrun Iraqi security forces in both areas.

“Men, women, kids and fighters’ bodies are scattered on the ground,” said Sheikh Rafi al-Fahdawi, a tribal leader from Ramadi, who was in Baghdad on Sunday and whose men had been resisting the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL…

American officials said recently that the Islamic State was on the defensive in Iraq, noting that the group had lost territory in Salahuddin Province and in some other areas in northern Iraq near the border with the autonomous Kurdish region. Yet the fall of Ramadi shows that the group is still capable of carrying out effective offensive operations…

With defeat looming in Ramadi on Sunday afternoon, the Anbar Provincial Council met in Baghdad and voted to ask Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi to send Shiite fighters to rescue Anbar, a largely Sunni province. In response, Mr. Abadi issued a statement calling for the militias, known as the Popular Mobilization Forces and including several powerful Shiite forces supported by Iran, to be ready to fight. Some of the Shiite irregular units, which were formed last summer after Shiite clerics put out a call to arms, are more firmly under the command of the government, while others answer to Iran.

The deterioration of Anbar over the past month underscored the ineffectiveness of the Iraqi Army, which is being trained by American military advisers, and raised questions about the United States’ strategy to defeat the Islamic State. At the same time, now that the militias are being called upon, the collapse of Ramadi has demonstrated again the influence of Iran, even if its advisers are unlikely to be on the ground in Anbar, as they were during the operation in Tikrit.

The campaign to retake Anbar Province from the Islamic State was supposed to be Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s show. The script went like this: American air power plus a ground force of Iraqi security forces and local Sunni tribal fighters would push out the militants, with Iran and its Shiite militias nowhere to be seen.

Now, with Ramadi, the capital of Anbar, fully in the hands of the Islamic State, thousands of Shiite militiamen on Monday were rushing to Sunni territory to try to turn the fight around, officials said. And Mr. Abadi’s rivals within Iraq’s Shiite political bloc, many of whom accuse him of doing too much to work with Sunnis rather than just empowering the militias, were enjoying another setback for the increasingly weakened prime minister…

Some of the newer units, formed last year after Shiite clerics called on young men to take up arms and fight the Islamic State, also called ISIS or ISIL, do answer to the prime minister. Some of the most powerful groups, though, such as the Badr Organization, Asaib Ahl al-Haq and Kataib Hezbollah, may answer to Mr. Abadi in individual cases — they did not advance on Anbar until the prime minister gave orders, for example. But those militias were trained and supported directly by Iran, and the militias’ leaders have grown immensely in popularity with the Iraqi public as they have won significant battles against the Islamic State…

Now that the militias have been called upon to fight in Anbar, Mr. Abadi’s authority seems to be waning again, and the militias’ cachet has only grown. One of the most popular pictures circulating on social media in Iraq on Monday showed Hadi al-Ameri, the powerful head of the Badr militia, examining a map and seemingly plotting out a new campaign in Anbar.

Scott Atran, an anthropologist who specializes in jihadi organizations, sees what even Iraqi officials acknowledge as the loss of Ramadi as more than just a propaganda boost. He accuses U.S. officials of spinning a dream world. “U.S. government and Iraqi government forces up until Saturday were saying Ramadi would never fall,” he notes.

He fumes: “Here is a group, attacked on all sides by a wide array of forces and countries, massively outnumbered, with no airpower, and unable to use their artillery because of that, having established a fully functioning state in less than a year, with functioning courts, police, customs, etc., defending a border 3,000 km long.” He continued: “While the Islamic militants’ reach has been limited in Iraq, it appears that these highly mobile Islamic State fighters who are able to switch the direction of their attacks from one side of the Syrian-Iraq border to the other, will now be targeting Syrian Kurdish forces to attract youth from 90 countries. And our government says these are weak, failed, and nihilistic gangs who are burning themselves out.”…

Hasakah, Ramadi, Palmyra—they all illustrate how ISIS strikes back whenever the group takes a hit both to boost the morale of its own fighters and to give the sense it remains undefeated even when it does suffer defeats. “Carry the battle to them. Don’t let them bring it to you. Put them on the defensive,” was Harry Truman’s take on how to conduct warfare. And that is exactly how ISIS fights.

[John] Kerry remained optimistic, even on Ramadi:

“I am convinced that as the forces are redeployed and as the days flow in the weeks ahead that’s going to change, as overall (they) have been driven back … I am absolutely confident in the days ahead that will be reversed.”

Ali Khedery, special assistant to five American ambassadors in Iraq, compared Kerry’s upbeat analysis to “what his counterpart said during Vietnam,” in an interview on the BBC:

“[Kerry is] showing incredible optimism in the face of a reality which is actually quite bleak. The reality since 9/11, the United States and coalition partners have spent trillions of dollars, lost thousands of lives trying to degrade and defeat radical Islam and rather than succeeding, all we have been seeing, frankly, is a trend where more and more radical Islamist groups Shia or Sunni are metasizing across the region.”

“To read too much into this single fight is simply a mistake,” said Colonel Steve Warren, a Pentagon spokesman.

“What this means for our strategy, what this means for today, is simply that we, meaning the coalition and our Iraqi partners, now have to go back and retake Ramadi.”

“Having American troops drawn into this fight… (would come) with a host of problems,” said one U.S. military official, speaking on condition of anonymity.

A civilian U.S. official told Reuters: “What we need is for everybody who is in Iraq to defend Iraq, and in the end, it’s got to be Iraqis.”

“Remember whose country it is and who’s got to take responsibility for it. It’s not the United States, in this case. It’s the Iraqis,” the official also said…

Asked if Obama was likely to change strategy, which was effectively set when he decided to withdraw U.S. troops from Iraq by the end of 2011 and leave the country’s defense to local forces, one official replied: “I don’t think so.”

Is there a Plan B?

The current U.S. approach is a blend of retraining and rebuilding the Iraqi army, prodding Baghdad to reconcile with the nation’s Sunnis, and bombing Islamic State targets from the air without committing American ground combat troops.

But the rout revealed a weak Iraqi army, slow reconciliation and a bombing campaign that, while effective, is not decisive…

One alternative would be a containment strategy — trying to fence in the conflict rather than push the Islamic State group out of Iraq. That might include a combination of airstrikes and U.S. special operations raids to limit the group’s reach. In fact, a Delta Force raid in Syria on Friday killed an IS leader known as Abu Sayyaf who U.S. officials said oversaw the group’s oil and gas operations, a major source of funding.

Setbacks against the Islamic State in Iraq might not be so devastating if the United States and its allies were on the offensive against that group elsewhere. The president’s plan, unfortunately, confined our efforts almost exclusively to Iraq. In the meantime, the group has managed to gain adherents in the Sinai, Yemen, Libya, Afghanistan, Pakistan and even further abroad, as part of its strategy to remain in Iraq and Syria and expand the caliphate. Had the Islamic State been dealt a rapid and crushing blow in Iraq, one might have hoped for a collapse in support for the organization and the dwindling of these various movements, all of which were preexisting organizations that swore allegiance to the Islamic State opportunistically in the hope that they would prove to be early backers of what Osama bin Laden liked to call “the strong horse.” The Islamic State’s success against the United States in Iraq makes the group look, indeed, like a strong horse and is likely to strengthen its efforts to recruit individuals and groups to its ranks. The fall of Ramadi is a major strategic defeat for the United States and an important victory for the Islamic State, even if it proves ephemeral.

The White House is no doubt abuzz with recommendations, many probably counseling avoiding being sucked further into Iraq. Such recommendations would be completely wrongheaded. We are already sucked into Iraq for the simple reason that an enemy that has claimed credit for lone-wolf attacks in the United States and Australia (which it quite probably inspired, although did not direct) is entrenched there, defeating our local partners, and threatens to establish a quasi-state that controls several large cities. Even at this stage, however, the Islamic State remains unable to stand against even a limited deployment of U.S. military forces if those forces are properly resourced and allowed to operate against the enemy. A few thousand additional combat troops, backed by helicopters, armored vehicles and forward air controllers able to embed with Iraqi units at the battalion level, as well as additional Special Forces troops able to move about the countryside, would certainly prevent further gains. They could almost certainly regain Ramadi and other recently lost areas of Anbar, in cooperation with local tribes. They might be able to do more.