WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States needs to expand a limited advise-and-assist mission in Iraq into embattled Anbar province, where some Iraqi forces are isolated and in defensive positions against Islamic State, the top U.S. military officer said on Thursday.
But General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the U.S. military’s Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Iraq’s government must be ready to arm Sunni tribes as a precondition for getting outside advisers into the western Iraqi province.
Washington hopes Iraq’s government can rebuild the shaky alliance with Sunni tribes, particularly in Anbar which is now mostly under the control of Islamic State.
Asked about recent gains in Anbar by the militants and their executions of tribesmen in the past week, Dempsey said: “That’s why we need to expand the train, advise and assist mission into ... al Anbar province.”
“But the precondition for that is that the government of Iraq is willing to arm the tribes,” Dempsey told a Pentagon news conference. “We have positive indications that they are, but we haven’t begun to do it yet.”
It was unclear if the advisers would be Americans or come from other participating nations in the U.S.-led coalition.
The United States no longer is waging a ground war in Iraq but has about 1,400 troops there, with about 600 of them acting in advisory roles to the Iraqis, mostly from joint operations centers in Baghdad and Arbil. None are in Anbar.
Islamic State was on the march in Anbar this year even before it seized much of northern Iraq in June. As the government and fighters from the autonomous Kurdish region have begun to recapture territory in the north, Islamic State has pressed its advances in Anbar, coming ever closer to Baghdad.
Dempsey’s remarks were in response to questions about Islamic State’s takeover last week of a Sunni Muslim village in Anbar, where the Albu Nimr tribe had been fending off Islamic State since early October.
Iraqi security sources and witnesses said on Thursday Islamic State militants executed at least 220 Iraqis in retaliation for the tribe’s opposition to their takeover.
Dempsey said the ongoing program in Iraq was starting to restore some offensive capability to Iraqi forces.
“We need to think about how to do that with the tribes,” Dempsey said.
Reporting by Phil Stewart; editing by Gunna Dickson