Iraqi army a con­cern, Obama says

He ac­knowl­edges a lack of ‘com­plete strat­egy’ for train­ing and a lack of re­cruits.

Los Angeles Times - - THE WORLD - By Christi Par­sons and W.J. Hen­ni­gan christi.par­sons@la­ wil­liam.hen­ni­gan @la­ Par­sons re­ported from Kruen and Hen­ni­gan from Wash­ing­ton.

KRUEN, Ger­many — Pres­i­dent Obama ac­knowl­edged Mon­day that the U.S.led coali­tion fight­ing Is­lamic State mil­i­tants lacked a “com­plete strat­egy” for train­ing and equip­ping Iraqi forces at the fore­front of the battle, spark­ing con­cern about the viability of a nearly year­long cam­paign that has foundered in re­cent weeks.

The U.S. pro­gram to rebuild the Iraqi army is strug­gling so badly that one air base used to train troops has zero trainees right now, ac­cord­ing to the Pen­tagon. Obama sought again to pin the blame for re­cent Is­lamic State gains on the Iraqis, as his ad­min­is­tra­tion has done in re­cent weeks.

“We don’t yet have a com­plete strat­egy be­cause it re­quires com­mit­ments on the part of the Iraqis, as well about how re­cruit­ment takes place, how that train­ing takes place,” Obama said.

Af­ter Is­lamic State’s rapid rise last year in Iraq and Syria, the White House de­vel­oped a plan to rebuild the Iraqi army by send­ing thou­sands of mil­i­tary per­son­nel from a U.S.-led coali­tion to train poorly or­ga­nized brigades for six weeks at a time.

In­stead, a lack of Iraqi forces has left scores of mil­i­tary train­ers from the U.S., Den­mark, and Australia with lit­tle to do ex­cept wait for a new class to ar­rive at the base in the west­ern prov­ince of An­bar, said one U.S. mil­i­tary of­fi­cial, who re­quested anonymity be­cause the of­fi­cial was not au­tho­rized to speak pub­licly on the mat­ter.

“We have guys that are just wait­ing to get to work right now,” the of­fi­cial said. “The Iraqi gov­ern­ment has a lot that they need to im­prove

‘All the coun­tries … are pre­pared to do more to train Iraq se­cu­rity forces if they feel that ad­di­tional work is be­ing taken ad­van­tage of.’

— Pres­i­dent Obama

on, specif­i­cally the man­age­ment and re­cruit­ment side.”

The fail­ure to pro­duce more re­li­able Iraqi troops re­stricts the U.S. abil­ity to gather in­tel­li­gence and to tar­get Is­lamic State in airstrikes. By con­trast, the mil­i­tant group con­tin­ues to lure re­cruits of its own, as well as raise money and main­tain strongholds in the face of the U.S.-led bomb­ing ef­fort.

Speak­ing to re­porters af­ter a meet­ing of world lead­ers here in ru­ral Ger­many, Obama said that he had pri­vately dis­cussed a rampedup train­ing strat­egy with Iraqi Prime Min­is­ter Haider Abadi but that they did not come to an agree­ment.

Last month’s fall of Ra­madi, the cap­i­tal of sprawl­ing An­bar prov­ince, was a re­minder of the larger dis­in­te­gra­tion of the mil­i­tary last June when Is­lamic State forces seized the north­ern city of Mo­sul and other parts of Iraq that they still hold. It also put a new ur­gency on the need for more Iraqi forces on the front lines.

The Pen­tagon determined last year that only about half of the Iraqi army’s 50 brigades were able to fight Is­lamic State, de­spite U.S. gov­ern­ment spend­ing of $25 bil­lion to train, arm and equip the coun­try’s se­cu­rity forces from 2003 to 2011. The rest, rang­ing from 1,000 to 3,000 troops apiece, were deemed to have col­lapsed in com­bat with the mil­i­tants or been tainted by sec­tar­i­an­ism and cor­rup­tion.

The U.S. has four bases across Iraq — Camp Taji, Bes­maya, Ir­bil and Al Asad — where trainees are taught about tac­ti­cal or­ga­ni­za­tion, lo­gis­tics and in­tel­li­gence to boost their abil­ity to counter Is­lamic State.

At a sep­a­rate spe­cial op­er­a­tions site, elite Iraqi forces are given a more rig­or­ous pro­gram that the Penta- gon does not pub­licly ac­knowl­edge.

So far, 8,920 Iraqis have com­pleted train­ing, with 2,601 more go­ing through the pro­gram, the Pen­tagon said Mon­day. But the lack of Iraqi troops at Al Asad, a vast base about the size of Boul­der, Colo., is dis­heart­en­ing, the mil­i­tary of­fi­cial said.

“Part of the prob­lem is that Iraqi forces are al­ways in a fight,” the of­fi­cial said. “When they try to move, they’re get­ting shot at.”

An­other cause of the de­lay is the vet­ting of each sol­dier in ac­cor­dance with a U.S. law that pro­hibits the mil­i­tary from aid­ing for­eign troops im­pli­cated in “gross hu­man rights vi­o­la­tions” such as rape, mur­der or tor­ture.

“We have tens of thou­sands ready to start train­ing, but the real prob­lem is the strin­gent cri­te­ria U.S. ap­plies on the would-be trainees,” said Mowaf­fak Rubaie, Iraq’s for­mer na­tional se­cu­rity ad­vi­sor and now a mem­ber of par­lia­ment.

In the mean­time, Is­lamic State has grabbed new ground in Iraq de­spite 2,729 coali­tion airstrikes against the mil­i­tants in the coun­try and an ad­di­tional 1,718 airstrikes in Syria.

Obama’s re­marks came amid a de­bate over who is to blame for those ad­vances. Abadi has called the ex­trem­ists’ seizure of ter­ri­tory a “fail­ure on the part of the world,” and U.S. De­fense Sec­re­tary Ash­ton Carter has said Iraqi forces lack a “will to fight.”

Obama did not go as far as his De­fense sec­re­tary but ac­knowl­edged that find­ing re­cruits will­ing to fight re­mains a prob­lem. He said some of the al­lied na­tions in the mission are un­sure that ad­di­tional re­sources, such as AT4 an­ti­tank mis­siles the U.S. has de­liv­ered to Iraqi forces, will yield re­sults.

“All the coun­tries in the in­ter­na­tional coali­tion are pre­pared to do more to train Iraq se­cu­rity forces if they feel that ad­di­tional work is be­ing taken ad­van­tage of,” Obama said. “And one of the things we’re still see­ing in Iraq is places where we have more train­ing ca­pac­ity than we have re­cruits.”

Repub­li­can crit­ics im­me­di­ately seized on Obama’s re­marks, not­ing his broader ad­mis­sion at the end of last sum­mer that the U.S. was still form­ing its strat­egy months af­ter Is­lamic State’s seizure of Mo­sul.

“Nearly a year af­ter first say­ing he didn’t have a strat­egy to com­bat ISIS, Pres­i­dent Obama again to­day said there is still not a com­plete strat­egy to take on the ter­ror­ist group,” said Michael Short of the Repub­li­can Na­tional Com­mit­tee, us­ing an acro­nym for Is­lamic State.

Obama ad­vi­sors who de­fended his char­ac­ter­i­za­tion of the work in progress last year re­it­er­ated their po­si­tion Mon­day. A lot still de­pends on the Iraqis, one se­nior of­fi­cial said.

“We’ve made some progress,” Obama said, “but not enough.”

Khalid Mo­hammed As­so­ci­ated Press

IRAQI TROOPS cel­e­brate dur­ing a train­ing mission out­side Bagh­dad last month. An Iraqi law­maker said the Pen­tagon’s strin­gent vet­ting of re­cruits has de­layed a pro­gram to train the Iraqi army to fight Is­lamic State.

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