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Obama Calls for Faster Training of Iraqi Forces

President Barack Obama said the United States and its allies must accelerate the training of the Iraqi security forces whose recent setbacks at the hands of Islamic State militants have raised questions about the broader U.S.-led effort to beat back the Sunni extremist group.

GARMISCH-PARTENKIRCHEN, GERMANY - JUNE 08:  U.S. President Barack Obama speaks to the media at the conclusion of the summit of G7 nations at Schloss Elmau on June 8, 2015 near Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany. In the course of the two-day summit G7 leaders discussed global economic, health, climate and security issues.  (Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images)
GARMISCH-PARTENKIRCHEN, GERMANY - JUNE 08: U.S. President Barack Obama speaks to the media at the conclusion of the summit of G7 nations at Schloss Elmau on June 8, 2015 near Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany. In the course of the two-day summit G7 leaders discussed global economic, health, climate and security issues. (Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

President Barack Obama said the United States and its allies must accelerate the training of the Iraqi security forces whose recent setbacks at the hands of Islamic State militants have raised questions about the broader U.S.-led effort to beat back the Sunni extremist group.

The president did not commit to sending more U.S. advisors to the country, however, and acknowledged that a plan for a beefed-up training effort had not yet been finalized. Republicans, and some Democrats, have been pushing Obama to increase the numbers of American military advisors on the ground in Iraq and to allow them to be more directly involved in the fight against the Islamic State by either fighting alongside the Iraqi fighters they’re training or by being deployed closer to the front lines to call in airstrikes against the militants.

President Barack Obama said the United States and its allies must accelerate the training of the Iraqi security forces whose recent setbacks at the hands of Islamic State militants have raised questions about the broader U.S.-led effort to beat back the Sunni extremist group.

The president did not commit to sending more U.S. advisors to the country, however, and acknowledged that a plan for a beefed-up training effort had not yet been finalized. Republicans, and some Democrats, have been pushing Obama to increase the numbers of American military advisors on the ground in Iraq and to allow them to be more directly involved in the fight against the Islamic State by either fighting alongside the Iraqi fighters they’re training or by being deployed closer to the front lines to call in airstrikes against the militants.

“One of the areas where we’re going to have to improve is the speed at which we’re training Iraqi forces,” Obama told reporters after the conclusion of the Group of Seven gathering of major industrialized democracies in Germany. “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.”

Last month’s fall of Ramadi, a strategically important city in the Sunni heartland, has sparked concern that the broader U.S. strategy for combating the Islamic State — which relies on a mix of American airstrikes, limited numbers of U.S. military trainers, and ground combat led by Iraqi troops, Shiite militiamen, and Sunni tribal fighters — has failed to beat back the group. At the moment, the United States has 3,000 troops in Iraq which includes some 650 trainers and advisors.

But the Iraqi government is having trouble finding enough troops to send through the U.S.-led training program. A Pentagon official on Monday said that there have been cases where the capacity of U.S. forces to train recruits is bigger than the number of Iraqi troops actually being made available for training. American forces have trained 8,920 Iraqi soldiers over the past several months, while 2,600 are currently still in training.

In a brief exchange Monday with Foreign Policy, Iraqi parliament Speaker Salim al-Jabouri appeared to brush off Obama’s comments as a message aimed “to the international community — not to the Iraqis” since, he said, Washington is already directly working with Baghdad to bolster the military response to the Islamic State. 

The capability of the Iraqi government to fight against ISIS is less than people expect, in relation to economic challenges and how the military has been developed,” Jabouri said in comments translated by Iraqi Ambassador to the U.S. Lukman Faily. “We cannot expect for Iraq to build a strategy without international cooperation.”

Earlier, in a 90-minute session at the U.S. Institute of Peace, Jabouri said American and Iraqi troops must fight “side by side” to defeat the Islamic State, which he estimated controls one-third of Iraqi territory and has forced as many as 3 million people from their homes. He did not explicitly call for more U.S. troops to go to Iraq but called the partnership “complementary.” 

Jabouri, a Sunni Muslim from the diverse eastern Diyala province, also acknowledged the struggle to balance the need for Shiite militias to join the fight against the specter of Iran’s ever-growing political influence in Iraq. He estimated as many as 100,000 Shiite militiamen — many with Tehran’s support — are fending off the Islamic State, compared to about 17,000 Sunni tribal fighters. Legislation to create a national guard of local security forces in Iraq’s provinces remain stalled, although he predicted approval could come as early as next month.

He said Baghdad is still grappling with a reconciliation movement to ease Iraq’s political and sectarian tensions: “It is not up to the required level,” Jabouri said. “The reconciliation project is not really convincing yet, to me.” 

The primary focus of the gathering of the G-7 countries in Germany on Sunday and Monday was how to deal with the Greek debt crisis and the ongoing battle in Ukraine between pro-Russian separatists and Kiev’s security forces. The fight against the Islamic State also took center stage, however, because of the attendance of Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi.

During the press conference, Obama said Abadi’s Shiite-dominated government would have to take more steps to persuade more Sunni tribes to take up arms against the Islamic State. During the height of the U.S. troop surge, Sunni militias worked with American forces to beat back the Islamic State’s predecessor organization, al Qaeda in Iraq. The White House hopes to repeat that dynamic now as it desperately seeks a way of beating back the Islamic State without deploying U.S. ground troops.

“One of the efforts that I’m hoping to see out of Prime Minister Abadi, and the Iraqi legislature when they’re in session, is to move forward on a National Guard law that would help to devolve some of the security efforts in places like Anbar to local folks, and to get those Sunni tribes involved more rapidly,” Obama said.

 

Iraqi forces have scored some victories, retaking part of the Baiji oil refinery, and continuing to fight for ground in the nearby town of Baiji. Pentagon spokesman Col. Steve Warren added on Monday that U.S. forces have identified several Iranian-made artillery pieces in the vicinity of the town that have been shelling Islamic State positions, but have not been able to determine whether Iranians are operating the weapons or simply working alongside the Shiite fighters they’ve already trained to do so.

Lara Jakes contributed to this report

Photo credit: Sean Gallup/Getty Images