WASHINGTON The United States has quietly started delivering promised arms for Iraqi soldiers from a $1.6 billion fund approved by Congress last year, officials said, following mounting Iraqi frustration over the pace of coalition assistance.
The Pentagon said long-awaited equipment from the Iraq Train and Equip Fund (ITEF) started being fielded about two weeks ago and was moving as fast as possible. Officials noted extensive, previous arms transfers under different U.S. authorities.
Iraq's Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi laid bare his frustrations at a gathering in Paris this week, saying Baghdad had received "almost none" of the promised international assistance.
"They're complaining the program is too slow. But the fact is it's a slow system," said Douglas Ollivant, a former Iraq adviser in the Obama and Bush administrations.
By contrast, he added, "they tell the Russians they want fighter planes and they show up in a month."
The first U.S. material provided to Iraqi forces under ITEF outfitted an Iraqi army brigade with rifles, machine guns, grenade launchers, mortars, protective masks and other gear.
And more arms were on the way, Pentagon spokeswoman Commander Elissa Smith said.
"This is the first of several planned unit equipment issues
for the coming weeks, which will include Peshmerga units," said
Smith, referring to Kurdish forces.
She said the first issue of equipment from the fund to Iraq's army occurred the week of May 18th, the same week that Ramadi fell to Islamic State, handing the Iraqi military its biggest defeat in nearly a year. A delivery of AT-4 anti-tank weapons last weekend also came from the fund, she said.
"We are, in terms of ITEF, still close to its starting point," a U.S. government official told Reuters, speaking on condition of anonymity.
DELIVERIES SEEN AS TOO SLOW
A Pentagon document completed last year detailed plans for
ITEF to provide a host of U.S. equipment, ranging from 45,000 pieces of body armor for Iraqi forces to 14,400 M4 rifles for Kurdish forces. Sunni fighters would get 5,000 AK-47 assault rifles. (Click 1.usa.gov/11nsTuN to read the document.)
U.S. officials acknowledge that a big test of the program will be getting the Shi'ite-led government in Baghdad to arm Sunni tribes, a crucial step, they say, toward reconciliation.
While arms are just part of a broader U.S. effort that includes air strikes, training and surveillance, the Iraqis see the pace of the weapons flow from Washington as one of the few measurable gauges of President Barack Obama's commitment to the fight - and they say the deliveries are too slow. Obama has already ruled out any major deployment of "boots on the ground."
Still, some U.S. officials feel that Abadi's complaints about weapons and other assistance broadly reflect domestic pressure, particularly after the fall of Ramadi last month.
"He's feeling pressure from all sides," one official said.
The Pentagon has cited coalition deliveries of tens of millions of rounds of ammunition and hundreds of vehicles to Iraq since last summer. The bulk of these were provided through different authorities than ITEF, such as coalition donations and traditional foreign military sales.
"A lack of weapons and ammunition is not the central problem," said a U.S. military official, speaking on condition of anonymity, citing instead "vulnerabilities in organization and leadership" of Iraq's security forces.
U.S. officials appeared to play down concerns about whether Iraq would be able to secure newly-provided weapons, after abandoned U.S.-provided arms and vehicles repeatedly ended up in Islamic State hands over the past year.
"Loss of weapons is an inherent risk when arming an allied military during active conflict," the military official said.
(Reporting by Phil Stewart; Editing by Tom Brown)