The Pentagon has plans to provide military equipment to Sunni tribal fighters, a Defense spokeswoman said on Wednesday, a shift from its current policy to provide the equipment only through the central government in Baghdad.
The new plans come after Sunni tribal fighters faced an embarrassing defeat by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) last week in Ramadi, the capital of Anbar Province. Fighters complained that they had not received payment or any U.S. military equipment from the central government.
Pentagon officials also confirmed the Sunni tribal fighters in Ramadi had not received any training from the U.S.-led train and equip program, a linchpin of the Obama administration's strategy to allow Iraqi forces to take on ISIS fighters on the ground and supplant the need for U.S. troops.
And although Congress approved a $1.6 billion Iraq Train and Equip Fund in December to provide weapons and equipment to the Iraqi Security Forces, including Sunni tribal fighters, it was unclear whether any of it had made it to Sunni forces who fought in Ramadi.
The U.S. has left the tasks of training and equipping Sunni forces up to the Shiite-dominated central government, in an effort to bolster the central government and get the two rival ethnic groups to overcome sectarian mistrust and tension.
However, administration officials in recent days have expressed that training and weapons to the Sunni fighters need to move faster.
Lawmakers have also called for the administration to equip Sunni fighters directly, and have threatened to withhold assistance from Baghdad unless it is distributed appropriately among the different minority groups in Iraq.
The U.S. has already distributed $400 million of the $1.6 billion fund, and another $566 million is scheduled to be released soon. A total of $1.24 billion is slated to go to Iraqi security forces, $354 million is slated to go to Kurdish peshmerga forces, and $24 million is slated to go to Sunni tribal fighters.
The fund pays for weapons, vehicles, medical equipment, body armor and other military equipment for the Iraqi forces.
So far, the equipment has gone to four coalition training sites, where it is accounted for by U.S. and coalition forces and then handed over to Iraqi officials, who then decide who to distribute it to. It is unclear whether any of equipment has reached Sunni tribal forces, although an Iraqi government spokesman insisted they have been provided with arms.
Pentagon officials say, so far, 7,000 government forces and Kurdish peshmerga have been trained and another 3,000 to 4,000 are going through the training pipeline. A senior State Department official said last week that somewhere in the "mid-thousands" of Sunni fighters have already received or are receiving training.