Iraq on Monday rejected accusations by the US defense chief that its security forces dodged battle in Ramadi and lack the will to fight the Islamic State (ISIS) group, reports AFP.
Pentagon chief Ashton Carter argued that the May 17 fall of Ramadi, the worst defeat Baghdad has suffered in almost a year, could have been avoided.
"We have an issue with the will of the Iraqis to fight ISIL and defend themselves," he told CNN on Sunday, using one of the acronyms referring to the Islamic State organization.
Washington has been one of Baghdad's key partners in the war to reclaim the ground lost to ISIS last year and Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi expressed disbelief at Carter's stinging comments.
"I'm surprised why he said that. I mean, he was very supportive of Iraq. I am sure he was fed with the wrong information," Abadi told BBC.
The loss of Ramadi, capital of Iraq's largest province Anbar, raised questions over the strategy adopted not only by Baghdad but also by Washington to tackle ISIS.
Months of air strikes and the deployment of advisers to reform and train the security forces have failed to keep up with ISIS's brutal tactics.
"Secretary Carter's remarks are surprising and likely to negatively affect the morale of the ISF," Iraq analyst Ahmed Ali said, using the acronym for the Iraqi security forces.
Ali, a visiting senior fellow at the Education for Peace in Iraq Center, argued there were several examples of Iraqi forces showing plenty of grit and cited the Baiji refinery, where elite troops have repelled relentless ISIS attacks for months.
Ramadi fightback imminent
Ahmed al-Assadi, spokesman of the Hashed al-Shaabi umbrella organization for Shi'ite militia and volunteers Abadi reluctantly called in after Ramadi's fall, reacted angrily to Carter's comments.
"This lack of will the US defense secretary mentioned is how the enemies of Iraq have tried to depict the Iraqi security forces," he told AFP.
The government has nonetheless admitted to shortcomings, vowing to investigate the chaotic retreat from Ramadi and punish "recalcitrant" fighters.
After a year of fighting and despite a string of territorial losses, the jihadists' will to fight, on the other hand, was never really in doubt.
ISIS is a trim fighting force which has time and again displayed great tactical skill and whose men see death on the battlefield as the ultimate reward.
Abadi and Washington had hoped to keep the Hashed and its Iranian-backed militia out the Sunni stronghold of Anbar.
But the collapse of the security forces during the fall of Ramadi was seen by most as evidence that Baghdad could not afford to do without the Hashed's determination to fight and sheer numbers.
"It makes my heart bleed because we lost Ramadi but I can assure you we can bring it back soon," Abadi told the BBC.
Iraqi regular forces backed by the Hashed and Sunni tribal fighters from Anbar have begun clawing back land east of Ramadi over the past few days.
Abadi said the major counteroffensive in Anbar would be launched in a matter of days.
ISIS solidifying "caliphate"
The capture of Ramadi together with the ISIS takeover of Palmyra in eastern Syria last week has consolidated the jihadists' grip on the heart of their self-proclaimed caliphate.
ISIS jihadists in different parts of Syria's Homs province have executed 67 civilians and 150 members of regime forces since May 16, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
Observatory director Rami Abdel Rahman said whole families had been executed, including children with their parents, after Syrian state media said ISIS had carried out a "massacre" in Palmyra, slaughtering some 400 civilians.
Syrian regime aircraft launched at least 15 strikes in and around Palymra on Monday, the most intense raids since the jihadists overran the city on Thursday, the Britain-based monitor reported.
On Sunday, ISIS forces also crossed from Syria with two suicide car bombs to attack the Iraqi side of the southern border crossing.
Iraqi border guards promptly retreated to a nearby crossing with Jordan, arguing they had repeatedly called for reinforcements, in vain.
In Iraq's Diyala province, which the government claimed to have cleared of ISIS fighters in January, eight bombs went off almost simultaneously early Sunday, security sources said.
Intelligence had been received of a possible wave of bomb attacks and only 14 people were wounded in the blasts in the towns of Baquba and Baladruz, a senior official said.
A top official said he feared more attacks and said Baquba was sealed off as a precaution.