White House defends Iraq training program

White House defends Iraq training program
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The White House on Wednesday defended the U.S.'s mission to train Iraqi forces, despite none of the training reaching Iraqi forces who were recently routed in Ramadi.

"This is a case where training began late last year," said Jen Psaki, White House communications director, on CNN's "New Day." "The Iraqi security forces who were fighting back in Ramadi didn't have access to that. That's something we need to continue." 

The administration's plan to train and equip Iraqi forces to take on the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria on the ground has come under scrutiny after the terrorist group ousted those forces from Ramadi, the capital of Anbar Province and a predominately Sunni area. 

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Defense Secretary Ashton Carter said the incident showed that Iraqi forces there lacked the "will to fight."

Sunni tribal fighters and police involved in the fighting say they never received any of the training or weapons from the central government, through with the U.S. is providing equipment.

Although the U.S. has set up four training sites around Iraq and trained 7,000 Iraqi and Kurdish peshmerga forces, it has left training Sunnis up to Baghdad. The Shiite-dominated central government has been resistant to train and equip Sunnis, a rival ethnic group, due to concerns of an uprising. 

For now, the U.S. is sticking by its plan to distribute weapons through Baghdad and is now focused on getting the central government to move faster on training and equipping Sunnis. 

"Prime Minister [Haider al-]Abadi came in in a situation where there was a lot of division, a lot of work needed to be done to better unite the forces, to better bring them together, to equip them," Psaki said. 

"He has done that work, his security forces have done that work. It takes some time and we're going to stay at it," she said.

"The training and equipping of Sunni tribes is led by the government of Iraq," a defense official said on background. "The coalition [supports] the arming of the Sunni tribes through the government to promote a united and cohesive Iraq." 

The U.S. and coalition forces have set up four training sites around Iraq — at Al Asad air base in western Iraq, Camp Taji in central Iraq, Besmaya in eastern Iraq, and in Erbil in northern Iraq.  

Service members from the U.S., Denmark, Australia, New Zealand, Spain, Portugal, Germany, the U.K., Italy and the Netherlands are conducting the training. 

Of the 7,000 Iraqi Security Forces trained so far, 1,300 are peshmerga. 

It is unclear how many Sunni forces have been recruited or trained by the Iraqi government. Last week, a senior State Department official said the number was in the "mid-thousands." 

The U.S.-led plan envisions a force of 22,000 Sunni tribal fighters throughout Iraq, with 8,000 of them in Anbar Province. It also envisions a Sunni police force of 24,000, which the official said is just getting started. 

Iraqi forces have been training Sunni fighters at Al Asad and recently recruited 1,100 more to train at a military base in Habbaniyah, closer to Ramadi. An Iraqi spokesman said he was not sure whether any of those new recruits fought in Ramadi. 

Pentagon officials say Iraqi forces who have been trained have deployed to the north and south of Iraq, and have taken part in special missions, such as to provide security for an annual Shiite pilgrimage to Baghdad. Others went to al-Karmah, a city about 40 miles west of Baghdad.  

The initial training is six weeks, with a week break. The recruits are taught leadership, ethics, law of war training and instruction, land navigation, basic medical training, infantry skills and small unit tactics. 

Units can receive additional training on lessons learned from the battlefield. So far, recruits have been a mixture of basic trainees, existing Iraqi Security Forces and seasoned forces. 

The training sites distribute mine-resistant ambush-protected vehicles, Hellfire missiles, MK16s rifles, body armor and helmets, as well as ammunition. 

"We have seen that the forces that have graduated have done well," U.S. Central Command spokesman Air Force Col. Pat Ryder said. "They have performed as you would expect an Army infantry maneuver unit to perform — exercising good command and control in the field."