Carter seeks ways to improve Iraq training, equipping

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Pentagon Mulls Improving Iraqi Troop Training After Fall of Ramadi

SINGAPORE (AP) -- U.S. military leaders are searching for ways to bolster the Iraqi forces following the Islamic State group's takeover of Ramadi earlier this month, Defense Secretary Ash Carter said Thursday, highlighting the importance of training and equipping the Sunni tribal militias. It's an effort that has repeatedly failed to take hold amid sectarian tensions in Iraq.

Days after making the startlingly frank assessment that the Iraqi forces lack "the will to fight," Carter told reporters en route to Singapore with him that he called a special meeting of top military advisers and asked them to come up with options. President Barack Obama earlier this week said the U.S. and its allies must re-examine the effectiveness of U.S. military aid in Iraq.

"One particular way that's extremely important is to involve the Sunni tribes in the fight — that means training and equipping them," Carter said. "Those are the kinds of things the team back home is looking at."

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Carter seeks ways to improve Iraq training, equipping
FILE - In this Dec. 15, 2015, file photo, U. S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter addresses the U.S. troops at the Incirlik Air Base near Adana, Turkey. A news report published Wednesday, Dec. 16, said Carter used a personal email account to do some of his government business during his first months at the Pentagon. (AP Photo/File)
U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter, left, shakes hands with Kurdish President Massoud Barzani at the presidential palace in Irbil, Iraq, Thursday, Dec. 17, 2015. Carter is visiting Barzani as well as U.S. troops to discuss the fight against the Islamic State group. (AP Photo/Seivan M.Salim)
TEL AVIV, ISRAEL - JULY 21: U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter waves as he boards a C-17 military aircraft at Ben Gurion International Airport in Tel Aviv, Israel, Tuesday, July 21, 2015, en route to a Jordanian Air Base. Carter is meeting with Jordanian troops and coalition officials involved in the fight against the Islamic State. (Photo by Carolyn Kaster - Pool/Getty Images)
AMMAN, JORDAN - JULY 22: U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter (2nd R) is greeted by Jordanian Armed Forces, Gen. Mashal al-Zaben, Special Advisor to his Majesty the King for Military Affairs and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (R) and members of the Jordanian Armed Forces as he arrives at the Jordan Armed Forces General Headquarters July 22, 2015 in Amman, Jordan. Carter is on a week long tour of the Middle East focused on reassuring allies about Iran and assessing progress in the coalition air campaign against the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq. (Photo by Carolyn Kaster-Pool/Getty Images)
Defense Secretary Ash Carter testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, June 17, 2015, before the House Armed Services Committeehearing on the U.S. policy and strategy in the Middle East. The effort to train Iraqi forces to fight Islamic State militants has been slowed by a lack of recruits and the U.S. will not meet its goal to train 24,000 by this fall, Carter said Wednesday. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)
German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen, left, welcomes her US counterpart Ash Carter, right, with military honors for a meeting in Berlin, Germany, Monday, June 22, 2015. (AP Photo/Michael Sohn)
U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter, center, shakes hands with U.S. Ambassador to Germany John B. Emerson, left, after a wreath laying ceremony at the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin, Germany, Monday, June 22, 2015. Carter, who is attending his first NATO meeting as defense secretary this week, said that the U.S. and NATO need to have a "strong but balanced" approach to deter Russia's military actions but at the same time needing Moscow to fight terrorism and hammer out a nuclear agreement with Iran. (AP Photo/Markus Schreiber)
U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter stands for a moment of silence after he laid a wreath at the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin, Germany, Monday, June 22, 2015. Carter, who is attending his first NATO meeting as defense secretary this week, said that the U.S. and NATO need to have a "strong but balanced" approach to deter Russia's military actions but at the same time needing Moscow to fight terrorism and hammer out a nuclear agreement with Iran. (AP Photo/Markus Schreiber)
U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter lays a wreath at the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin, Germany, Monday, June 22, 2015. Carter, who is attending his first NATO meeting as defense secretary this week, said that the U.S. and NATO need to have a "strong but balanced" approach to deter Russia's military actions but at the same time needing Moscow to fight terrorism and hammer out a nuclear agreement with Iran. (AP Photo/Markus Schreiber)
Defense Secretary Ash Carter waits to testify on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, June 17, 2015, before the House Armed Services Committee hearing on the U.S. policy and strategy in the Middle East. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)
ARLINGTON, VA - JUNE 11: U.S. Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter (2nd L) and Gen. Fan Changlong (L), Vice Chairman of the Chinese Central Military Commission of People's Liberation Army, listen to the U.S. national anthem as they participate in an honor cordon June 11, 2015 at the Pentagon in Arlington, Virginia. Secretary Carter held the honor cordon to welcome Vice Chairman Fan to visit the Pentagon. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)
ARLINGTON, VA - MAY 07: Secretary of Defense Ash Carter speaks to the media during a briefing at the Pentagon May 7, 2015 in Arlington, Virginia. Secretary Carter talked about various issues including the situation in the Middle East and the Department of Defense budget request. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
ARLINGTON, VA - MARCH 11: U.S. Secretary of Defense Ash Carter (L) and the United Kingdom Secretary of State for Defense Michael Fallon hold a news conference at the Pentagon March 11, 2015 in Arlington, Virginia. Carter and Fallon held a bi-lateral meeting to discuss many topics, including the ongoing campaign against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and their countries' continued work to help the Ukraine government forces improve their capabilities in intelligence, communications, logistics and first aid. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
CAMP ARIFJAN, KUWAIT - FEBRUARY 23: U.S. Secretary of Defense Ash Carter speaks to troops during a question-and-answer session at Camp Arifjan on February 23, 2015 in Kuwait. Carter will chair a meeting on Monday of senior U.S. military officers and diplomats on the fight against the Islamic State group. (Photo by Jonathan Ernst-Pool/Getty Images)
U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter speaks with U.S. military personnel at Kandahar Airfield in Afghanistan, Sunday, Feb. 22, 2015. Carter is making his first trip to visit troops and commanders in Afghanistan since his swearing-in this week. (AP Photo/Jonathan Ernst, Pool)
U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter, left, speaks with a soldier at Kandahar Airfield in Afghanistan, Sunday, Feb. 22, 2015. Carter is making his first trip to visit troops and commanders in Afghanistan since his swearing-in this week. (AP Photo/Jonathan Ernst, Pool)
U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter speaks with U.S. military personnel at Kandahar Airfield in Afghanistan, Sunday, Feb. 22, 2015. Carter is making his first trip to visit troops and commanders in Afghanistan since his swearing-in this week. (AP Photo/Jonathan Ernst, Pool)
U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter speaks with U.S. military personnel at Kandahar Airfield in Afghanistan, Sunday, Feb. 22, 2015. Carter is making his first trip to visit troops and commanders in Afghanistan since his swearing-in this week. (AP Photo/Jonathan Ernst, Pool)
U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter, left, speaks with Commander of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), Gen. John Campbell, as they walk across the tarmac to board their plane to Kandahar, from the Hamid Karzai International Airport, in Kabul, Afghanistan, Sunday, Feb. 22, 2015. Carter is making his first trip to visit troops and commanders in Afghanistan since his swearing-in this week. (AP Photo/Jonathan Ernst, Pool)
U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter, left, speaks with Col. Viet Luong, after his arrival to Kandahar, Afghanistan, Sunday, Feb. 22, 2015. Carter is making his first trip to visit troops and commanders in Afghanistan since his swearing-in this week. (AP Photo/Jonathan Ernst, Pool)
KABUL, AFGHANISTAN - FEBRUARY 21: U.S. Secretary of Defense Ash Carter (C) is greeted with a military honor cordon as he arrives to meet Afghan President Ashraf Ghani (not pictured) at the Presidential Palace on February 21, 2015 in Kabul, Afghanistan. Carter is making his first trip to visit troops and commanders in Afghanistan since he was sworn in. He will also meet with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani. (Photo by Jonathan Ernst-Pool/Getty Images)
KABUL, AFGHANISTAN - FEBRUARY 21: U.S. Secretary of Defense Ash Carter (L) sits down to a meeting with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani (R) at the Presidential Palace on February 21, 2015 in Kabul, Afghanistan. Carter is making his first trip to visit troops and commanders in Afghanistan since he was sworn in. He will also meet with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani. (Photo by Jonathan Ernst-Pool/Getty Images)
KABUL, AFGHANISTAN - FEBRUARY 21: U.S. Secretary of Defense Ash Carter (2nd L) is greeted with a military honor cordon as he arrives to meet Afghan President Ashraf Ghani (not pictured) at the Presidential Palace on February 21, 2015 in Kabul, Afghanistan. Carter is making his first trip to visit troops and commanders in Afghanistan since he was sworn in. He will also meet with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani. (Photo by Jonathan Ernst-Pool/Getty Images)
KABUL, AFGHANISTAN - FEBRUARY 21: U.S. Secretary of Defense Ash Carter (L) meets with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani (R) at the Presidential Palace on February 21, 2015 in Kabul, Afghanistan. Carter is making his first trip to visit troops and commanders in Afghanistan since he was sworn in. He will also meet with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani. (Photo by Jonathan Ernst-Pool/Getty Images)
KABUL, AFGHANISTAN - FEBRUARY 21: U.S. Secretary of Defense Ash Carter (center left) is greeted with a military honor cordon as he arrives to meet Afghan President Ashraf Ghani (not pictured) at the Presidential Palace on February 21, 2015 in Kabul, Afghanistan. Carter is making his first trip to visit troops and commanders in Afghanistan since he was sworn in. He will also meet with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani. (Photo by Jonathan Ernst-Pool/Getty Images)
KABUL, AFGHANISTAN - FEBRUARY 21: U.S. Secretary of Defense Ash Carter (L) sits down to a meeting with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani (R) at the Presidential Palace on February 21, 2015 in Kabul, Afghanistan. Carter is making his first trip to visit troops and commanders in Afghanistan since he was sworn in. He will also meet with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani. (Photo by Jonathan Ernst-Pool/Getty Images)
US Secretary of Defense Nominee Ash Carter (L) and Senator Jack Reed (D-RI) speaks before a meeting on Capitol Hill January 22, 2015 in Washington, DC. Senator Jack Reed (D-RI) and Secretary of Defense Nominee Ash Carter met to discuss Ash's nomination. AFP PHOTO/BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI (Photo credit should read BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)
US Secretary of Defense Nominee Ash Carter arrives for a meeting on Capitol Hill January 22, 2015 in Washington, DC. Senator Jack Reed (D-RI) and Secretary of Defense Nominee Ash Carter met to discuss Ash's nomination. AFP PHOTO/BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI (Photo credit should read BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)
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But a senior defense official said Carter had ruled out providing weapons and training directly to the Sunni fighters and still wants to work through the Iraqi government, an approach that has been ineffective so far. The official was not authorized to describe the defense secretary's thinking publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity.

Outmanned Islamic State forces took Ramadi on May 16 after Iraqi forces fled, despite superior numbers. The Obama administration has said that none of the Iraqi forces fighting in Ramadi, the capital of the Sunni heartland Anbar province, had been trained by the U.S.

In remarks to reporters in Washington, Gen. Ray Odierno, the Army chief of staff, said the Iraqi government has chosen to employ most of the U.S.-trained Iraqi soldiers in and around Baghdad.

Iraqi officials have complained that they are not getting the heavy military equipment they need fast enough.

Carter said the events in Ramadi "highlighted the central importance of having a capable ground partner" in Iraq.

"I think training and equipment affect 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."

Officials said Carter met with Gen. Martin Dempsey, the Joint Chiefs chairman; Gen. Lloyd Austin, his top Middle East commander; and other key policy officials Tuesday and told them he wanted options for improving and hastening the training and equipping program.

Part of Iraq's plan to bolster its effectiveness against IS fighters includes training, equipping and paying Sunni tribesmen to join in the fight. It is reminiscent of the Sunni Sahwa, or Awakening movement, which confronted al-Qaida in Iraq starting in 2006, although that program was begun by U.S. forces working directly with the tribes. Al-Qaida in Iraq is the Islamic State's predecessor.

In January, the Iraqi government held an inauguration ceremony for a few hundred Sunni fighters in Anbar province with the hope that it would plant the seed for an expanded national guard, in which Sunnis would take on responsibility for security in Iraq's Sunni areas, which are predominantly under Islamic State control today.

But the force has failed to get off the ground at the rate the Iraqi government had hoped. Many Sunnis complain that the Shiite-led government in Baghdad has not done enough to support any legitimate confrontation with the Islamic State group, saying weapons deliveries and training have fallen short. Sunni grievances mounted during the long rule of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who was widely seen as pursuing sectarian policies. When IS militants swept across Iraq last summer, many Sunnis initially greeted them as liberators and cheered the retreat of the despised government security forces.

But now Sunnis also fear the brutal consequences of confronting the IS group. In November, the extremists killed more than 200 men, women and children from the Sunni Al Bu Nimr tribe in the western Anbar province, apparently viewing it as a threat. The mass killing, and grisly online pictures of bodies displayed in the streets, led the remnants of the tribe to go into hiding, fearing the government could not protect them

It's unclear 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 in Anbar, killing at least 17 soldiers.

Islamic State extremists seized large parts of Anbar in early 2014. The capture of Ramadi this month marked a major defeat for Iraqi forces, which had been making steady progress against the group with the help of U.S.-led airstrikes.

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.

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