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U.S. Military Officials Say Iraq Needs More Fighters To Battle Islamic State


We begin this hour with this reality check from two top U.S. Defense officials. Iraq is short thousands of the recruits it will need to take on the Islamic State. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter and Joint Chiefs chairman, General Martin Dempsey, told lawmakers today that only a capable Iraqi ground force can defeat ISIS. NPR's Tom Bowman has the story.

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Secretary Carter told the House Armed Services Committee that the U.S. effort to create an effective Iraqi ground force is moving slowly. It is, as he put it, a work in progress. Just last month, ISIS took Ramadi, the provincial capital of Anbar Province. Iraqi forces fled.


ASHTON CARTER: What we saw in Ramadi last month was deeply disappointing and illustrated the importance of a capable and motivated Iraq ground force. In the days that followed, all of us on the president's National Security team, at his direction, took another hard look at our campaign.

BOWMAN: And that hard look included sending 450 more American advisers to Anbar to recruit Sunni fighters. The American trainers and advisers now stand at 3,500. Some lawmakers want thousands of U.S. combat troops to speed up the operation against ISIS. Others suggest deploying small numbers of combat air controllers to call in airstrikes or Green Berets to instill confidence in Iraqi battalions. Republican congressman Mike Coffman served with the Marines in Iraq. He said patrolling with Iraqis seemed to work out well.


MIKE COFFMAN: And it really emboldened the confidence of those Iraqi soldiers.

BOWMAN: But General Dempsey said the U.S. should not repeat that effort.


GENERAL MARTIN DEMPSEY: If their spine is not stiffened by the threat of ISIL on their way of life, nothing we do is going to stiffen their spine.

BOWMAN: Carter also brushed aside sending American combat troops, alluding to the more-than-165,000 American troops once stationed in Iraq.


CARTER: Because we know from experience that putting U.S. combat troops on the ground as a substitute for local forces will not produce enduring results.

BOWMAN: Carter acknowledged that the toughest challenge is a political one - getting more recruits to take on ISIS, especially Sunni fighters in Anbar Province who despise the Shia-led government.


CARTER: We simply haven't received enough recruits. Of the 24,000 Iraqi security forces we had originally envisioned training at our four sites by this fall, we've only received enough recruits to be able to train about 7,000.

BOWMAN: Secretary Carter said the Iraqi government is reaching out to the Sunnis, and that's starting to show results with more recruits. But with military leaders continuing to postpone operations, the committee's chairman, Republican Mac Thornberry of Texas, reflected a widespread impatience.


MAC THORNBERRY: So what's the reasonable time period for us to check back and see whether this is working as we hope?

CARTER: I honestly think it's reasonable for you to ask in weeks.

BOWMAN: Timetables aside, the committee's ranking Democrat, Congressman Adam Smith, raised an issue that's gaining ground in policy circles. Iraq has ceased to exist.


ADAM SMITH: That cow has left the barn. Iraq is fractured. You can make a pretty powerful argument, in fact, that Iraq is no more. So when do we shift that strategy and start building the capabilities of other partners who will fight?

BOWMAN: Partners like Sunnis and Kurds. But Carter said at this point, the administration's policy is to continue to support the Iraqi government in the concept of a multi-sectarian state. Tom Bowman, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tom Bowman is a NPR National Desk reporter covering the Pentagon.