Defense Secretary Ash Carter told the Pentagon this week to come up with ideas to improve training and equipping of Iraqi troops, particularly of the Sunni tribes that complain the Shiite-dominated government is dragging its heels on helping them.
WASHINGTON — Pentagon leaders are trying to “fine-tune” U.S. strategy for ousting the Islamic State group from Iraq, focusing on faster and better training and arming of Sunni tribes whose combat role is central to reversing the extremists’ advances, senior U.S. officials said Thursday.
Defense Secretary Ash Carter, who was traveling to Asia, said he told senior military officers at the Pentagon this week to come up with ideas to improve training and equipping of Iraqi troops, particularly of the Sunni tribes that complain the Shiite-dominated government in Baghdad is dragging its heels.
“I can’t describe to you what the possibilities are because folks are looking at them right now,” Carter said.
The scramble for answers comes after Islamic State group forces, though outnumbered, captured the Anbar province capital, Ramadi, as Iraqi forces fled May 16. Although the Obama administration says those Iraqi forces were not U.S.-trained, the defeat prompted Carter to make the frank public assessment last weekend that the Iraqis lacked “the will to fight.”
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President Obama on Tuesday said it was time for the U.S. to consider whether it was delivering military aid to Iraq efficiently.
A Pentagon spokesman, Col. Steve Warren, said later that the focus is on fine-tuning the strategy, not rewriting it.
The U.S. military strategy in Iraq is built on airstrikes to degrade the Islamic State group forces while rebuilding Iraqi security forces to eventually regain the vast swaths of territory in the north and west that were lost in the past 18 months. The current focus is on retaking Ramadi and other parts of Anbar province.
The Obama administration insists it will assist the Sunnis only through the Shiite-dominated central government in Baghdad because it wants to foster a multisectarian government, rather than directly arm and organize the ethnic tribes for combat. It was unclear whether Carter might recommend scrapping the indirect approach or adjust it, but the tenor of his remarks and comments by other officials suggested that big changes were unlikely.
Gen. Ray Odierno, the Army chief of staff who was a top commander in Iraq during the 2003-11 war, said there may be merit in enlarging the U.S. military role by embedding U.S. advisers with Iraqi forces in the field. But he made clear that this also has drawbacks.
Odierno, who served in command three times in Iraq, said the failure of Iraqi security forces to hold their ground was “incredibly disappointing to me personally.” But he also said he sees no wisdom in sending substantial U.S. ground combat forces to do the fighting.
Expending American lives to defeat the extremists without fixing Iraq’s internal political divisions would be a waste and an unsustainable solution, he said.
“It always comes back to the government of Iraq,” Odierno added, referring to its inability to unify its Sunni, Shiite and Kurdish populations.
The U.S. has pledged to accelerate the shipment of certain weapons to Baghdad, including AT-4 weapons that could be used to stop armored vehicles that Islamic State group fighters have used effectively as suicide bombs. The U.S. also has said it will try to speed up the delivery of airstrikes requested by the Iraqi government.
Carter on Thursday focused on arming and equipping Sunni tribes.
“One particular way that’s extremely important is to involve the Sunni tribes in the fight; that means training and equipping them,” he said. “Those are the kinds of things the team back home is looking at.”