Re­cruit short­age in Iraq a key worry

Los Angeles Times - - THE WORLD - By David S. Cloud david.cloud@latimes.com

WASHINGTON — A U.S.-led mil­i­tary train­ing pro­gram in Iraq has turned out only 7,000 Iraqi sol­diers since last year, far short of the 24,000 that the Pen­tagon en­vi­sioned train­ing by this fall, se­nior U.S. of­fi­cials ac­knowl­edged Wed­nes­day, the latest sign of trou­ble in the cam­paign against Is­lamic State.

“We sim­ply haven’t re­ceived enough re­cruits” from the Iraqi gov­ern­ment, De­fense Sec­re­tary Ash­ton Carter told a House Armed Ser­vices Com­mit­tee hear­ing. “We must see a greater com­mit­ment from all parts of the Iraqi gov­ern­ment.”

De­spite the short­fall, Carter said he fully sup­ported the White House de­ci­sion last week to open a fifth train­ing camp at Taqad­dum mil­i­tary base in eastern An­bar province and to send 450 ad­di­tional U.S. mil­i­tary train­ers and sup­port per­son­nel there.

Iraqi Prime Min­is­ter Haider Abadi’s gov­ern­ment crit­i­cized Carter last month af­ter he warned that Iraqi troops won’t be able to de­feat Is­lamic State un­less they de­velop a “will to fight.”

His com­ments re­flected grow­ing con­cern and frus­tra­tion in the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion af­ter Iraqi mil­i­tary forces aban­doned Ra­madi, An­bar’s cap­i­tal, to a much smaller group of Is­lamic State fight­ers.

Carter used more diplo­matic lan­guage Wed­nes­day. “What we saw in Ra­madi last month was deeply dis­ap­point­ing and il­lus­trated the im­por­tance of a ca­pa­ble and mo­ti­vated Iraqi ground force,” he said.

He said the White House and Pen­tagon agreed, af­ter the set­back in Ra­madi, to en­hance the U.S. train­ing pro­gram for Iraqi troops and es­pe­cially to “rein­vig­o­rate and ex­pe­dite the re­cruit­ment of Sunni fight­ers,” in­clud­ing lo­cal tribal fight­ers, to ease the sec­tar­ian di­vide.

The U.S. train­ing at Taqad­dum can help draw Sunni Mus­lims to join the Shi­ite Mus­lim-dom­i­nated army, a nec­es­sary step if Iraq’s forces are to re­take Sunni ma­jor­ity cities, such as nearby Ra­madi and Fal­louja, Carter said.

U.S. strat­egy “hinges on Sunni fight­ers, that’s the es­sen­tial in­gre­di­ent,” he said.

Carter and Gen. Martin Dempsey, chair­man of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, faced skep­ti­cism from law­mak­ers from both par­ties. Sev­eral said they doubt Sun­nis would fight for a gov­ern­ment that has re­lied on Shi­ite mili­tias and Ira­nian ad­vi­sors to fight the Sunni ex­trem­ists.

“I hope we have thou­sands of Sun­nis who flood into this train­ing, but there are con­cerns about whether they are go­ing to do that and trust the Iraqi gov­ern­ment,” said Rep. Mac Thorn­berry (R-Texas), the com­mit­tee chair­man.

Repub­li­cans called for the ad­min­is­tra­tion to pro­vide more di­rect as­sis­tance to Iraq, in­clud­ing U.S. troops to ac­com­pany Iraqi units into bat­tle as ad­vi­sors, and to call in coali­tion airstrikes.

Democrats on the panel gen­er­ally warned against deeper U.S. in­volve­ment, even ques­tion­ing in some cases the de­ci­sion to send more train­ers.

Carter said the ad­min­is­tra­tion would “re­visit” whether to send more U.S. troops, or to broaden their role, once “ad­e­quate” Iraqi units are in com­bat.

Dempsey said the Pen­tagon might rec­om­mend adding troops and even a lim­ited ground com­bat role once Iraq shows it is ready to un­der­take mil­i­tary oper­a­tions to oust the mil­i­tants from ma­jor cities, such as Mo­sul in the north.

But he em­pha­sized that he agreed with the White House strat­egy of re­ly­ing on Iraqi troops and Kur­dish forces in the north for ground com­bat oper­a­tions.

“I would not rec­om­mend putting U.S. forces in harm’s way sim­ply to stiffen the spine of lo­cal forces,” he said.

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