BAGHDAD (AP) — The top US military official said Monday he is "a bit concerned" about whether the international coalition fighting the Islamic State is sustainable for the longer-term challenge of confronting extremists in other regions.
Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters traveling with him that the basis of his concern is the possibility of continued sectarian divisions in Iraq.
Dempsey said that in military terms the campaign against IS is "on path." But he put equal emphasis on the importance of sustaining the coalition for the longer term. Shiite dominance in Baghdad upsets predominantly Sunni countries like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
"It won't be enough to defeat (the Islamic State) just inside Iraq," Dempsey said after a series of meetings with top government officials, including Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, who assumed power last September, and Defense Minister Khalid al-Obeidi. Sunni Arab nations, in particular, need to be retained as partners against IS, Dempsey said.
"And on that basis I came away with some concerns because the coalition has some concerns about" weak Iraqi governance. "I came away a bit concerned that it's going to be difficult to sustain the coalition for the rest of the challenge, which is trans-regional, unless the government of Iraq can form that national unity platform to which they committed."
Highlighting those concerns at an earlier joint news conference al-Obeidi said his government is comfortable asking for and receiving help from Shiite-led Iran, a major U.S. adversary and an enemy of key U.S. allies in the Gulf, in its fight against Islamic State militants.
"We are in a state of war," al-Obeidi said, which requires Iraq to seek foreign assistance.
Iraq has been relying on military assistance from both the U.S. and Iran in its struggle against Islamic State extremists who have captured control of about one-third of Iraq and Syria. In Iraq's offensive in Tikrit, Iran's assistance is significant but the U.S. is not involved at all because Iraq has not asked for air cover there.
The U.S. worries that Iran is taking too big a role in Iraqi affairs, but al-Obeidi dismissed that notion.
"We have solicited help from many of the countries that we have a strategic relationship with," he said, mentioning the United States and Iran.
"We appreciate all this help. We are in a state of war and we look to our friends to help us in this confrontation," he added. "But I think the situation is balanced," with regard to partnering with the U.S. and Iran.
"The situation is acceptable to us." He said Iranian-armed Shiite militias have played "a very positive role" in Iraq.
Dempsey, however, has been skeptical. In the interview Monday after seeing al-Obeidi, Dempsey said he is not yet sure how to assess the Iraqi government's intentions on its relationship with Iran and other issues.
"What I'm trying to sort out, actually, is the degree to which their near-term embrace of the assistance they're receiving from Iran is a reaction to the existential threat (posed by IS), or whether it is something longer-term," he said.
Dempsey said al-Abadi plans to visit Washington in April.
Dempsey, who commanded the U.S.-led effort to train and equip Iraqi security forces from 2005 to 2007, also said he told Iraqi leaders of his concern about problems inside their troubled army, which the U.S. is trying to rebuild after its collapse last summer in the face of an Islamic State onslaught in Mosul and elsewhere.
"Militarily, I was clear that there still are some leaders who need to be replaced" because of incompetence, he said. "There still is a shortage of recruits. There are still instances where those recruits are not being paid on time, equipped properly."
Dempsey said U.S. military officers have tried to push the Iraqis into installing more competent commanders. He said they have told Iraq "which leaders in our assessment are capable of the task and which ones are not. That dialogue hasn't produced the kind of change that I think it needs to produce in order to have a campaign-quality military."
Earlier at his news conference with al-Obeidi, Dempsey was asked if the U.S. would use air power to protect Iraqi antiquities from destruction by Islamic State.
"We will consider it, but it will have to fit into all the other things we are being asked to do on behalf of Iraq," he said.
Dempsey said the U.S.-led coalition is being careful in its use of air power in order to avoid civilian casualties. He said the U.S. does not want to create additional suffering as it targets Islamic State militants in Iraq.