ELMAU, Germany—Acknowledging military setbacks, President Barack Obama said Monday the United States still lacks a “complete strategy” for training Iraqi forces to fight the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). He urged Iraq’s government to allow more of the nation’s Sunnis to join the campaign against the violent extremists.
Nearly one year after American troops started returning to Iraq to assist local forces, Obama said ISIS remains “nimble, aggressive, and opportunistic.” He touted “significant progress” in areas where the United States has trained Iraqis to fight but said forces without U.S. assistance are often ill-equipped and suffer from poor morale.
ISIS terrorists captured the key Anbar provincial capital of Ramadi last month, prompting Defense Secretary Ash Carter to lament that Iraqi troops lacked “the will to fight.” That was a strikingly negative assessment of a military that has been the beneficiary of billions in U.S. assistance dating back to the war started during the administration of U.S. President George. W. Bush in 2003.
Still, Obama indicated that simply increasing the number of Americans in Iraq would not resolve the country’s issues. The United States currently has about 3,000 troops there for train-and-assist missions.
“We’ve got more training capacity than we have recruits,” he said at the close of a two-day Group of Seven meeting at a luxury resort tucked in the Bavarian Alps.
G-7 leaders invited Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi to join them Monday for talks on the security situation in the Middle East. Obama and Abadi also met one-on-one shortly before the president departed for Washington.
In both public and private, Obama urged Abadi and his Shiite-led government to allow more Sunnis to fight ISIS. The White House has long blamed Iraq’s sectarian divisions for stoking the kind of instability that allowed the terrorists to thrive.
“We’ve seen Sunni tribes who are not only willing and prepared to fight ISIL, but have been successful at rebuffing ISIL,” Obama said, using another term for ISIS. “But it has not been happening as fast as it needs to.”
In Washington, the highest-ranking Sunni in Iraq’s government said Sunni tribes are still receiving insufficient training and inferior weapons compared to the national army. Parliament Speaker Salim al-Jabouri put the onus for fixing that on Baghdad, saying it should provide clear assurances that the tribes will receive the necessary weapons.
“Guarantees create confidence, and we need confidence,” al-Jabouri told a small group of reporters, speaking through an interpreter.
An early opponent of Bush’s war in Iraq, Obama withdrew U.S. forces in late 2011 and has vowed that he won’t send Americans back into combat there. The United States, along with coalition partners, is launching airstrikes in both Iraq and Syria but is banking on local ground forces to supplement that effort.
A six-week U.S. combat training course instructs Iraqi forces in how to shoot, communicate, and move about on the battlefield. They are also given individual military equipment.
Col. Steve Warren, Pentagon spokesman, told reporters Monday that the United States wants to be able to increase the number of Iraqi troops being trained, but to do that the Iraq government has to increase the number of troops it provides. As of June 4, the United States had trained 8,920 Iraqi troops at the four sites, and 2,601 more are undergoing training, Warren said.
Beyond Iraq’s sectarian divisions, senior defense officials said, training is hindered because Iraqi security forces have difficulty getting to training sites. Not only are they consumed with fighting, but there are also risks in the travel itself, from ISIS terrorists to roadside bombs and blocked roads.
Some Republicans in the United States say ISIS’s strength is a result of what they see as Obama’s muddled and ineffective strategy. The president was sharply criticized in August for saying the United States didn’t have an overall strategy for fighting ISIS, and his comments Monday about plans for training the Iraqis sounded similar.
“We aren’t winning the fight against ISIL because we don’t have a winning plan,” Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) said. “The president can’t delay anymore, especially as ISIL continues to make major gains.”
The campaign against ISIS was one of several security issues on the agenda during the G-7 talks. Leaders also spent significant time discussing the crisis in Ukraine, where the West alleges Russia continues to sow instability.
In a joint statement, the leaders vowed to keep sanctions in place until a fragile peace agreement is fully implemented. They also said sanctions could increase if Russia escalates its aggression, despite the fact that the economic penalties have done little to change Vladimir Putin’s approach so far.
Until last year, Russia had joined the United States, Canada, Britain, Germany, France, Italy, and Japan in the bloc of leading industrial nations. But those nations kicked Russia out last year as part of its punishments for actions in Ukraine.