MACDILL AIR FORCE BASE, Fla. (AP) — Iraq's fractured army has begun to regroup and stage modest, localized attacks on the Islamic State militants who routed them last spring and summer, but they are unlikely to be ready to launch a major counteroffensive for many months, senior U.S. military officials said Thursday.
"We've seen them start to act like an army," one official said in a lengthy exchange with a group of Washington reporters who were invited to U.S. Central Command headquarters for the command's most extensive briefings on operations in Iraq and Syria.
The Iraqi security forces, trained for years by the U.S. prior to its departure from Iraq in 2011, have suffered sectarian divisions, a breakdown in leadership and a loss of confidence. To compound the problem, they surrendered tanks, armored personnel carriers and other U.S.-supplied equipment several months ago when IS fighters overtook Mosul.
The officials, who were not authorized to be quoted by name in discussing details of the U.S. military strategy in Iraq and Syria, made it clear that no large Iraqi counteroffensive was imminent or even feasible for the time being. Their remarks coincided with a Pentagon statement that said Iraq's new defense chief, Khaled al-Obeidi, told Defense Minister Chuck Hagel in a telephone call that Baghdad was committed to regaining the initiative.
"The minister was quite clear on more than one occasion ... that he has every intention of going on the offensive," the Pentagon press secretary, Rear Adm. John Kirby, said in Washington. He said Hagel encouraged al-Obeidi to rebuild the army in a manner that "engenders trust and confidence" not only among soldiers but also among the Iraqi people.
The Iraqi government is blamed by U.S. officials for having sown the sectarian seeds of this year's collapse in much of northern and western Iraq. Yet Baghdad is the key to President Barack Obama's approach to rolling back IS gains in Iraq.
Obama has ruled out re-engaging U.S. troops in a ground war there; instead he has told the Iraqis they must regroup and unite against IS, with American and certain partner countries like France and Britain assisting. Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said in September that he would recommend to Obama that he authorize a more aggressive use of U.S. military advisers in Iraq if the situation called for it. So far those advisers are not operating in the field with Iraqi troops but rather are working in higher headquarters at military offices in Baghdad and the Kurdish capital of Irbil.
Hagel told reporters Thursday that Dempsey has not recommended that U.S. troops take a more direct hand in assisting Iraqis, such as calling in airstrikes from the battlefield. Hagel said he has had no discussion of this with senior military officers.
"They feel confident that what we're doing is working," Hagel said.
Other officials, however, have said that U.S. advisers may be needed on the battlefield when the Iraqi army attempts to dislodge IS fighters from an urban area like Mosul.
The Central Command officials who briefed reporters said the U.S. was encouraged that the Iraqi army was taking early, albeit modest, steps toward reclaiming lost territory. They pointed to an ongoing Iraqi army attack toward Bayji, home of the country's largest oil refinery. The officials declined to discuss certain details but said the Iraqis were clearing large number of roadside bombs planted by IS fighters along the highway north of Tikrit.
In Washington, Kirby said the Iraqi move toward Bayji has been slowed also by poor weather conditions. The U.S. has sought to help the Iraqis by providing periodic airstrikes. Central Command said one airstrike overnight Thursday destroyed an IS fighting position south of Bayji.
One Central Command official said it could be as long as a year before the Iraqi army is ready to take back the northern city of Mosul. Iraqi troops abandoned their posts when IS fighters swept into Mosul in the spring.
The official said the Iraqi army needs a lot of help in basic things like properly maintaining its equipment, sufficiently planning combat operations and using battlefield intelligence, in order to restore its combat power. He called this a "months-long kind of thing."
On Syria, the officials said a prospective U.S. effort to train and arm moderate Syrian opposition forces was at its earliest stages of recruiting and vetting candidates for a force of perhaps 5,000 fighters. They said the fighters initially would be expected to simply defend their own villages inside Syria, with a longer-term goal of "getting them to the point where they can take on ISIL."
The official said the U.S. envisions training these opposition fighters in units of 100 to 300 men. The training is to take place in Saudi Arabia and perhaps other Arab countries in the region.
Associated Press writer Lolita C. Baldor in Washington contributed to this report.