ABOARD A US MILITARY AIRCRAFT – U.S. military leaders are looking for ways to improve and speed up the program to train and equip Iraqi forces, including options to better prepare Sunni tribes to join the fight, Defense Secretary Ash Carter said Thursday.
Getting equipment to the battlefield more quickly and enhancing the training could help build the Iraqi forces' confidence, Carter said, just days after he publicly chastised them for showing "no will to fight" when they fled Ramadi last week even though they greatly outnumbered Islamic State militants.
"One particular way that's extremely important is to involve the Sunni tribes in the fight — that means training and equipping them," said Carter, who called a special meeting of his top advisers on Tuesday and tasked them to come up with options. "Those are the kinds of things the team back home is looking at."
Iraqi officials have complained that they are not getting the heavy military equipment they need fast enough. And on Tuesday President Barack Obama said the U.S. and its allies must examine whether they are deploying military assets in Iraq effectively.
A senior defense official said Carter is not considering providing weapons directly to the Sunnis, and still wants to work through the Iraqi government. The official was not authorized to discuss the options publicly so spoke on condition of anonymity.
Speaking to reporters traveling with him to Asia, Carter said that the events in Ramadi "highlighted the central importance of having a capable ground partner" in Iraq.
"I think training and equipment effect the effectiveness of the forces and therefore their ability to operate, and their confidence in their ability to operate," said Carter. "So, there's a direct relationship."
Carter spoke at the start of an 11-day overseas trip that includes stops in Singapore for an international security conference and visits to maritime facilities in Vietnam and India.
According to officials, Carter met with Gen. Martin Dempsey, the Joint Chiefs chairman, Gen. Lloyd Austin, his top Middle East commander, and other key policy officials to the Tuesday session and told them he wanted options for improving and hastening the training and equipping program.
Carter's criticism of the Iraqi forces triggered a quick response from Baghdad, where leaders defended their troops. And the White House moved to temper his comments a bit in the days that followed.
It's unclear, however, how quickly the U.S. will move to adjust the training or speed up the delivery of equipment, even as the Iraqis mobilize to try and retake western Anbar Province. The Obama administration has so far shown no inclination to commit more U.S. forces to Iraq or allow train and assist teams to move closer to the battlefront with smaller Iraqi units.
On Tuesday, just as Iraqi forces prepared their offensive, Islamic State militants launched a series of suicide bombings outside Fallujah, killing at least 17 soldiers.
Islamic State extremists seized large parts of Anbar in early 2014 and captured Ramadi earlier in May — marking a major defeat for Iraqi forces, which had been making steady progress against the group with the help of U.S.-led airstrikes.
The retreat of the Iraqi forces in Ramadi prompted comparisons with the military's collapse last year, as troops fled in the face of the Islamic State's march across portions of Syria and Iraq. And it raised questions about U.S. efforts to train Iraq's forces amid ongoing sectarian tensions between the Shiite-led government and the Sunnis.
The campaign to retake Anbar is considered critical in regaining momentum in the fight against the Islamic State group.
The U.S. has said it will provide airstrike support to government-led Iraqi forces, but not any Shiite militias operating outside government control.