FORT IRWIN, Calif. (AP) — Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said Sunday that the U.S. military is accelerating its efforts to train and advise Iraqi forces fighting Islamic State militants.
Hagel said U.S. special operations troops in Iraq's western Anbar province are getting an early start on the train-and-advise effort. He said the effort began a few days ago, but did not provide details.
The Pentagon chief spoke to reporters after observing Army training in California's Mojave Desert.
According to plans laid out last week, the U.S. expects to train nine Iraqi security forces brigades and three Kurdish Peshmerga brigades.
Hagel said the speed-up was recommended by Gen. Lloyd Austin, the commander of U.S. Central Command.
Hagel's spokesman, Navy Rear Adm. John Kirby, said later that Austin believes getting an early start on training Iraqi forces in Anbar may prompt other countries with a stake in the fight against Islamic State to commit trainers to Iraq.
Approaching the problem of ill-trained and poorly motivated Iraqi soldiers as a coalition rather than as a unilateral U.S. undertaking is a key pillar of U.S. strategy. Partnership is seen as a way of undermining the ideological appeal of Islamic State.
Kirby said a number of countries have made verbal commitments to provide trainers, but he said he could not identify them because they have yet to publicly announce their intended contributions.
The U.S. announced earlier this month that it will send another 1,500 troops to Iraq to expand training and advising of Iraqi security forces. But those troops have not yet departed the U.S., leaving some to question how urgently Washington viewed the mission.
The special operations troops that Hagel said Austin is now putting at al-Asad air base in Anbar had been operating as 12-man advisory teams elsewhere in Iraq since last summer. Kirby said about 50 are now at al-Asad, which was a major air hub for U.S. forces during the 2003-11 war.
The Islamic State group holds key cities in Anbar, including Fallujah.
During his stop at Fort Irwin to see Army desert training, Hagel gave a pep talk to a few hundred soldiers. One asked Hagel when the U.S. was going to send an invasion force to Iraq to fight the Islamic State group.
Hagel said that was not in the cards, echoing President Barack Obama's belief that it would make no sense.
"This has to be an Iraqi effort," Hagel said, adding: "It is their country. They have to do this themselves."
Hagel said he planned to speak Monday with Gen. Martin Dempsey, the Joint Chiefs chairman who spent the weekend in Iraq.