BAGHDAD (AP) — The defeat was the most humiliating for the Iraqi military in months.
Disguised in Iraqi army uniforms and driving stolen Humvees, Islamic State group militants stormed Camp Saqlawiyah in Iraq's western Anbar province, sending some 700 soldiers fleeing. At least 40 soldiers were killed and another 68 taken prisoner, later to be paraded through the streets of the city of Fallujah.
The debacle, which took place Sept. 21, shows the extent of the task as the Obama administration moves for the first time to deploy military advisers directly on the ground in Anbar and other battle zones with the extremists. It is part of a planned expansion in training and advising of the Iraqi military — a risky step for the U.S, which until now has been wary about front-line involvement and fearful of history repeating itself.
"No mission that we undertake anywhere in the world is risk-free," Pentagon Spokesman Rear Adm. John Kirby said Friday. "These trainers will be operating at fixed sites that we are surveying right now."
President Barack Obama has asked Congress for $5.6 billion for the expansion. He said Friday he has authorized the deployment of up to 1,500 more American troops to bolster Iraqi forces, which could more than double the total number of U.S. forces to 3,100. He said this represents a new phase in the campaign against IS as the U.S. plays a bigger role in enabling the Iraqis to go on the offensive.
The Iraqi military has struggled to recover from its collapse in June when the Islamic State group captured country's second largest city, Mosul, and swept over much of northern Iraq. In the face of the blitz, commanders disappeared. Pleas for more ammunition went unanswered. In some cases, soldiers stripped off their uniforms and ran.
Months later, in the Saqlawiyah attack, troops were sill ill-prepared. Soldiers who fled the front line said they hadn't been trained for such heavy fighting, were given no orders and had been living mainly on a diet of salty water and canned tomatoes.
In Anbar, territory is increasingly slipping out of the Iraqi government's hands — most recently large parts of the provincial capital, Ramadi, where the militants have gradually chipped away at the military's resistance.
An American advisory mission visited Anbar this week for site surveys at al-Asad air base, formerly the largest coalition base in western Iraq, as they search for potential training locations.
The U.S. has already sent assessment teams to an Iraqi military base in Taji, 20 kilometers (12 miles) north of Baghdad, for discussions with Iraqi colleagues on how to collaborate. The U.S. is looking to train Iraqi security forces on issues ranging from weaponry, synchronization, fire-maneuvering and gunnery, and better integration of ground action with coalition airstrikes.
But if Iraqi forces are unable to push back IS and recover lost territory, Obama would be faced with a choice of accepting failure in Iraq or committing U.S. combat troops — which would break his pledge not to get involved in fighting another Iraq war.
Anbar resonates with many Americans because of how costly fighting was there for U.S. troops. A lasting image of the war was the bodies of U.S. contractors hanging from a Euphrates River bridge in Fallujah in March 2004. The November 2004 fight to retake Fallujah was an iconic moment for the Marines.
The Islamic State group took Fallujah in January and has since been expanding in Anbar, part of the nearly third of both Iraq and Syria that it controls. This month, its fighters killed more than 200 men, women and children from Anbar's Sunni Al Bu Nimr tribe, apparently fearing the tribe would challenge its authority in the province.
More than 3,500 U.S. soldiers died in combat in Iraq between 2003 and 2011 — and there are concerns that sending Americans back to Anbar in any capacity will inevitably make them a target.
There is also the old question of granting American troops immunity from Iraqi law. Under former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, immunity was a major sticking point between Washington and Baghdad, ultimately leading to the decision to withdraw all remaining U.S. troops in late 2011. With American forces now returning, albeit in much smaller numbers, Iraq's new Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi will inevitably face these questions.
Until now, 12 U.S. advisory teams had been operating in Iraq since August, stationed in joint operations centers in Baghdad and Irbil, the capital of the northern autonomous Kurdish region.
But advisers alone may not be the answer. The U.S.-trained Iraqi military has been gutted since the crisis began.
Iraqi officials say the country's total military and police forces stand at 1 million men.
However, a senior U.S. military official told The Associated Press that as of June, the Iraqi military strength stood, generously, at 125,000 men, down from 205,000 in Jan. 2014, forcing it to rely heavily on unruly Shiite militias for reinforcement. The official spoke anonymously as he is not authorized to brief the media.
Part of the plan to boost Iraqi forces includes training, equipping and paying Sunni tribesmen to join in the fight against the Islamic State group, reminiscent of the Sunni Sahwa, or Awakening movement, which confronted al-Qaeda in Iraq starting in 2006.
On Tuesday, a low-key ceremony led by Parliament Speaker Salim al-Jabouri was held at al-Asad air base to inaugurate the first group of Sunni fighters in what Iraqi and American officials hope is the makings of a full-fledged non-sectarian national guard. However, this has been a challenging process since many of the Sunni tribes involved in the Sahwa campaign felt a breach of trust after the American and Iraqi governments' commitment to the program waned.
Now the U.S. may only find that it needs to commit even more to get the job done.
"The issue is whether there is political will in the White House to accept the types of plans that are being recommended," said Richard Brennan, an Iraq expert at RAND Corporation and a former Department of Defense policymaker. There is "pressure to keep numbers small, which is going to undermine recommendations of commanders on the ground."
AP National Security Writer Robert Burns and Lolita C. Baldor contributed to this report from Washington.