A Marine four-star general who commanded troops during the Iraq War said seeing Ramadi fall to Islamic State militants left him heartbroken and mindful of how hard U.S. service members worked to bring stability to the region.
Gen. John Kelly, the head of U.S. Southern Command, shared his thoughts about the troubling news out of Iraq with an audience at the Atlantic Council in Washington on Tuesday. Kelly commanded I Marine Expeditionary Force (forward) in 2007 and Multi-National Force-West in Iraq from 2008 to 2009.
"It breaks my heart," Kelly said. "I've got over two years of my life in Ramadi and Anbar province. As a senior commander once and as a second senior commander once, I got hundreds of young Americans either killed or wounded under my command."
Kelly said he experienced a very different Iraq at the end of his second tour, when regional security was largely in the hands of Iraqi troops and partnerships were brokered with Sunni leaders.
"My last saunters down the streets of Ramadi, I walked unarmed with just my Iraqi soldiers — a couple of the Iraqi soldiers who had sidearms," he said. "Same thing in Fallujah when I left there."
Kelly said the region then had a functioning democratic election process and that troops had begun to tear down the reminders of war in the region: barbed wire and concrete barriers.
"When I went back on my last tour I would meet some of these sheikhs my predecessors had brought on board that had been fighting us tooth and nail," he said. "And I would say, you know, 'Sheikh Ahmed, the last time I was here I was trying to kill you, or at least track you down and capture you.' 'My brother, that's exactly what I was trying to do to you,' [the sheikh replied]. That's how much it changed."
Kelly did not speculate on the strategic significance of the IS capture of Ramadi or the ability of Iraqi troops to regain the turf that had been lost to the militants.
As early as 2008, however, Kelly had warned that Syria was becoming a "sanctuary" from which terrorists and extremists flowed into Iraq.
"The Syrian border ... is the last frontier," Kelly told U.S. News and World Report that year.
Now the U.S. commander responsible for South and Central America and the Caribbean, Kelly is also rumored to be a contender for next commandant of the Marine Corps. The current commandant, Gen. Joseph Dunford, has been nominated to succeed Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey when he retires this fall.