The U.S. mission in Iraq has stalled at one of five coalition training sites because the central government has not been sending new recruits, according to defense officials.
Baghdad has not identified or sent any new recruits to the Al Asad air base in western Iraq for as many as four to six weeks, defense officials said Monday.
"Al Asad has zero. And Al Asad has had zero now for some time," said one defense official on background.
The stall has prompted U.S. officials, including President Obama, to urge the Iraqi government to speed up its recruitment efforts. The training is a key component of the U.S.-led military effort against the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq (ISIS).
"One of the things that we're still seeing is, in Iraq, places where we've got more training capacity than we have recruits," Obama said Monday after a discussion with Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi.
"Part of my discussion with Prime Minister Abadi was how do we make sure that we get more recruits in. A big part of the answer there is our outreach to Sunni tribes. We've seen Sunni tribes who are not only willing and prepared to fight ISIL, but have been successful at rebuffing ISIL. But it has not been happening as fast as it needs to," he said, using an alternate name for the group.
The Al Asad air base is one of the primary sites for training Sunni tribal fighters, which the U.S. has left entirely up to the Iraqi forces out of deference to Baghdad.
At one point earlier this year, there were several hundred U.S. troops — including about 300 Marines — training other Iraqi forces at the base. It is unclear how many are there today.
The training and equipping of Sunni tribal fighters became more urgent after the fall of Ramadi last month, which is the capital of Anbar Province — referred to as the "Sunni heartland."
Sunni forces who were defending the city said they had not received any training or equipment from the central government, which is dominated by Shiites.
The U.S. has resisted directly training or equipping Sunni forces out of concern it could undermine Baghdad, which views the Sunni population with mistrust, and worsen sectarian tensions.
Defense officials believe the training has stopped for two main reasons: the difficulty of bringing forces to the base, and the government of Iraq being "still not completely unified."
"They still haven't gotten over many of their sectarian divides, so that is creating some of the problems as well," the defense official said.
The U.S.-led coalition has so far trained about 8,920 at the five training sites in Iraq. Those include one located near Baghdad, and others in Erbil, Taji, Al Asad and Besmaya.
There are approximately 910 trainees at the site near Baghdad, which is training Iraqi special operations forces, 800 trainees at the Erbil training site, 255 trainees at Besmaya, and 630 trainees at Taji.