WASHINGTON—Iraq’s military is incapable of mounting an offensive against Sunni militants who have seized large sections of the country, the top U.S. general said Thursday, suggesting the U.S. might have to play a larger role in helping Iraqis defeat the regional threat.
Initial assessments from U.S. military teams in Iraq have found that the country’s military can defend Baghdad, but wouldn’t be able to uproot the extremist group known as Islamic State, which is consolidating control across the Middle East nation, said Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
“Will the Iraqis, at some point, be able to go back on the offensive?” Gen. Dempsey said. “Probably not by themselves.”
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Despite the early findings, U.S. officials say they don’t anticipate the need for large numbers of American troops or immediate U.S. airstrikes. While military teams are still developing their understanding of the situation, preliminary reports indicate that the U.S. might have to add more advisers to help the Iraqi military plan its counteroffensive, develop intelligence on militant movements and, potentially, help plan airstrikes.
“There is likely little appetite to go beyond the advisory mission in terms of a ground presence,” said one U.S. Defense official. “The Iraqis have to do this for themselves. It’s their fight, it’s their turf, it’s their country.”
But Gen. Dempsey challenged perceptions that the U.S. military is slowly being drawn back into a major military conflict through “mission creep,” without a clear exit strategy. While the U.S. military might have to launch attacks at some point, “we’re not there yet,” he said.
“Assessing and advising and enabling are very different words than attacking, defeating and disrupting,” he said.
The U.S. has sent about 700 military personnel to Iraq in recent weeks to protect Americans now working in the country and to determine how the Pentagon can help in the fight against the Islamic State.
Earlier this week, the Islamic State changed its name from the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham, or ISIS.
Pentagon officials have been reluctant to be drawn back into conflict in Iraq, where the U.S. military lost more than 3,700 lives after the 2003 invasion to oust its president, Saddam Hussein. President Barack Obama pulled virtually all U.S. forces out of Iraq in 2011, fulfilling a pledge to end the long war.
Mr. Obama has made it clear that he has no intention of sending U.S. forces back into combat in Iraq. But U.S. military involvement is slowly growing, increasing the risks for Americans in Iraq.
The Pentagon has dispatched armed drones to better protect U.S. officials working in Iraq, along with manned and unmanned aircraft to gather intelligence on the militant threat.
After seizing key Iraqi cities and closing in on Baghdad, extremist forces appear to be “stretched” as they try to consolidate their gains, Gen. Dempsey said in a joint news conference Thursday with Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel.
Military officials are developing a range of options for Mr. Obama to consider, including targeted airstrikes against Islamic State leaders.
To launch an offensive against the group, the Iraqi military would probably need logistical support, but not necessarily U.S. airstrikes, Gen. Dempsey said.
The Pentagon leaders said that the key to turning things around is a new government in Baghdad that is not viewed as hostile to the country’s minority Sunni population, many of whom have aligned themselves with the Islamic State.
“Unless the Iraqi government gets the message out that it really does intend to allow participation by all groups, everything we’re talking about makes no difference,” Gen. Dempsey said.
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Dempsey does not “get it” either.
There cannot be “inclusive” government in the Middle East where people’s loyalty goes like this: first: clan, then in order: tribe, ethnicity, sect, religion. “Nation state” is a foreign concept and does not exists their circles of loyalty.
The ISIS fighters seem to have skipped directly to “sect” but they really haven’t. That is why there is incessant infighting within these types of groups. A few of them are so fired up that Wahabbi Islam is the be all and and all, but it is not nearly enough to create a nation state.
An criminal enterprise, an extortion racket, made of violent men, that they could keep going for a quite a while. Greed overcomes all (at least for some people).
Ranting on about “inclusive government” to Maliki is fruitless.