SINGAPORE — 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 US 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."
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.
Associated Press writers Robert Burns in Washington and Vivian Salama in Baghdad contributed to this report.