PARIS — About half of Iraq's army is incapable of partnering effectively with the U.S. to roll back the Islamic State group's territorial gains in western and northern Iraq, and the other half needs to be partially rebuilt with U.S. training and additional equipment, the top U.S. military officer said Wednesday.
Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and a former wartime commander of U.S. training programs in Iraq, said a renewed U.S. training effort might revive the issue of gaining legal immunity from Iraqi prosecution for those U.S. troops who are training the Iraqis. The previous Iraqi government refused to grant immunity for U.S. troops who might have remained as trainers after the U.S. military mission ended in December 2011.
"There will likely be a discussion with the new Iraqi government, as there was with the last one, about whether we need to have" Iraqi lawmakers approve new U.S. training, he said. He didn't describe the full extent of such training but said it would be limited and he believed Iraq would endorse it.
"This is about training them in protected locations and then enabling them" with unique U.S. capabilities such as intelligence, aerial surveillance and air power, as well as U.S. advisers, so they can "fight the fight" required to push the Islamic State militants back into Syria, Dempsey said. He spoke with a small group of reporters traveling with him to Paris to meet with his French counterpart to discuss cooperation in the conflicts in Syria and Iraq and other issues.
French military surveillance aircraft on Monday began flying intelligence-gathering flights over northern Iraq in support of the U.S.-effort to counter the Islamic State forces, and a French official said Wednesday that those flights will be conducted daily for an indefinite period. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because the official was not authorized to discuss intelligence matters by name. The French government has said it would be willing to participate more broadly in military action against the Islamic State in Iraq but it has not yet conducted airstrikes.
The bolstering of Iraqi security forces is one element in a multifaceted campaign plan that President Barack Obama is to be briefed on Wednesday in Tampa, Florida, when he meets with Gen. Lloyd Austin, head of U.S. Central Command, which manages U.S. military operations and relations across the Middle East.
A Pentagon plan for training Syrian rebels is another, more controversial element of the plan, which also includes potential airstrikes in Syria; building an international coalition to combat the Islamic State group in Syria and Iraq; and efforts to cut off finances and stem the flow of foreign fighters to the Islamic State group.
Once Obama signs off on the plan, the Iraq portion will need to be adapted, in consultation with the Iraqi government, to fit the Iraqis' priorities, Dempsey said.
Dempsey said U.S. military teams that spent much of the summer in Iraq assessing the strengths and weaknesses of the Iraqi security forces concluded that 26 of 50 army brigades were capable partners for the U.S. He described them as well led and well equipped, adding, "They appear to have a national instinct, instead of a sectarian instinct." He said the 24 other brigades were too heavily weighted with Shiites to be part of a credible national force.
Sectarianism has been a major problem for the Iraqi security forces for years and is in part a reflection of resentments that built up during the decades of rule under Saddam Hussein, who repressed the majority Shiite population, and the unleashing of reprisals against Sunnis after U.S. forces toppled him in April 2003. Sunni resistance led to the relatively brief rise of an extremist group called al-Qaida in Iraq, led by the late Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. That group withered but re-emerged as the Islamic State organization, which capitalized on Sunni disenchantment with the Shiite government in Baghdad.
Dempsey said no amount of U.S. military power will solve the problem of the Islamic State's takeover of large swaths of northern and western Iraq. The solution, he said, must begin with formation of an Iraqi government that is able to convince the country's Kurdish and Sunni populations that they will be equal partners with the Shiites in Iraq's future.
"I'm telling you, if that doesn't happen then it's time for Plan B," he said. He didn't say what that would entail.
Dempsey also said the Islamic State fighters in Iraq have reacted to weeks of U.S. airstrikes by making themselves less visible.
"What we've seen so far is, a lot of the black flags have come down, a lot of the convoys have dispersed, a lot of the (fighter) assembly areas have been moved into urban areas," Dempsey said, adding, "This will be a campaign of adaptation." He predicted the Islamic State fighters would "literally litter the road networks" with improvised explosive devices, or IEDs, in the days ahead. That, in turn, will require more counter-IED training and equipment for the Iraq army, he said.