Pentagon looking at ways to train and equip Sunni forces faster

Pentagon looking at ways to train and equip Sunni forces faster
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The Pentagon is looking at ways to train and equip Sunni forces in Iraq faster after their embarrassing rout by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), defense officials said Thursday.

Defense Secretary Ash Carter said Thursday he met with a team at the Pentagon earlier this week to discuss ways to enhance the U.S. military's train-and-equip program of Iraqi forces, particularly for Sunni tribal fighters. 

"I think one particular way that's extremely important is to involve the Sunni tribes in the fight. That means training and equipping them. So those are the kinds of things that the team back home is looking at," he during a press briefing en route to Singapore.

The Pentagon is currently providing all training and equipment to Sunni forces through the Shia-dominated central government in Iraq, out of deference to Baghdad's concerns of a Sunni uprising and sectarian mistrust. 

However, Sunni forces who fled from Ramadi complained they had never received payment or equipment from the central government. 

"The events of recent weeks there have highlighted the central importance of having a capable ground partner. And that's what the purpose of our train-and-equip program is," Carter said. 

"I can't describe to you what the possibilities are because folks are looking at them right now," he added.

Carter also said that Secretary of State John Kerry and his team were "Looking at the lines of effort that they're responsible for as well." 

"So we can try to, across the political side and the -- the military side, do everything we can to think of to increase the effectiveness of the campaign," Carter said. 

A senior defense official later told the Associated Press that Carter still wanted to equip the Sunni forces through the central government, and not provide training and weapons directly.

Pentagon spokesman Army Col. Steve Warren said on Thursday that the "fine-tuning" of the train-and-equip mission was not a change in "policy" or "strategy" but more of "tactics."

However, the "fine-tuning" comes after Iraqi army and Sunni forces fled Ramadi, the capital of Anbar Province, despite substantially outnumbering ISIS fighters.

After administration officials offered various explanations, including that a dust storm contributed to their loss, Carter on Sunday said bluntly that Iraqis lost "the will to fight."

That comment rankled Baghdad, prompting Vice President Joe Biden to try to smooth over the friction in a call with Iraq's prime minister. 

On Thursday Carter seemed to take partial blame, saying there is a "direct relationship" between the train and equip mission and Iraqi forces' confidence. 

"I think training and equipment affect the effectiveness of the forces and therefore their ability to operate, their confidence, and their ability to operate. So there's a direct relationship," he said. 

Carter had met with Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey, U.S. Central Command Commander Gen. Lloyd Austin, and other "key policy officials," and told them he wanted options for improving and hastening the train-and-equip program, officials told the AP.

The Pentagon told The Hill on Wednesday it has "plans" in the future to provide equipment from a $1.6 billion Iraq Train and Equip Fund to Sunni tribal fighters, with the approval and coordination of the Iraqi government. 

Currently, the central Iraqi government and its commanders decide who gets the U.S.-provided equipment, and is in charge of distributing it. Congress approved the fund in December, with $24 million slated for the Sunni forces. 

"The Sunni Tribal units affiliated with the Iraqi government are currently trained by the [Iraqi Security Forces] and equipped by the [Government of Iraq] but there are plans to provide ITEF equipment to tribal fighters in the future, with the approval and coordination of the GoI," said Pentagon spokeswoman Navy Cmdr. Elissa Smith told The Hill in a statement.