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Jan 22, 2015 4:08 PM

Iraq coalition tensions emerge in Islamic State fight

The Associated Press

BAGHDAD (AP) Iraqi commanders heavily dependent on outside support to defeat the Islamic State group are increasingly voicing frustration over the U.S.-led coalition's efforts, complaining of miscommunication, failed deliveries of weapons, inadequate training and differences in strategy.

Speaking to The Associated Press this week, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said, "We want to see an acceleration of the training, acceleration of the delivery of arms" from foreign allies.

Al-Abadi complained that Iraq is "left almost alone to get these arms and munitions for the army, for our fighters, and we expect much more."

At the same time, he reiterated that his government does not want any foreign boots on the ground, and he acknowledged that coalition airstrikes had been "very, very effective."

Leaders of the coalition stressed its successes at a London meeting Thursday, with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry saying that nearly 2,000 airstrikes had helped ground forces retake 700 square kilometers (270 square miles) of territory, kill 50 percent of Islamic State commanders and choked off some of the group's oil revenue.

But three Iraqi generals who spoke to the AP on condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to discuss ongoing operations said the U.S. has on several occasions ignored guidance from Iraqi commanders and has failed to provide ample training and weapons to Iraq's beleaguered forces.

"Whenever we complain about the poor training they provided us, they remind us that it was Iraq who forced them to leave" in 2011, one of the generals said.

The generals noted, by contrast, Iran's willingness to quickly accommodate their urgent needs for weapons and training, while the coalition makes them wait.

The U.S. spent billions of dollars training and equipping Iraq's army during its eight-year intervention, only to see security forces crumble last summer when the Islamic State group swept across northern Iraq and captured the second-largest city of Mosul.

Many Iraqis blame the military's weakness on the government of former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, saying it did little to target mounting military corruption and had replaced seasoned commanders with less-experienced loyalists.

A senior U.S. military official told the AP that as of June 2014, the Iraqi military stood at 125,000 men at best, down from 205,000 in January 2014. That left it relying heavily on unruly Shiite militias for reinforcements.

In November, President Barack Obama authorized the deployment of up to 1,500 more American troops to bolster Iraqi forces, which could more than double the total number of U.S. forces to 3,100. None has a combat role.

The Pentagon has requested $1.6 billion from Congress to train and arm Iraqi and Kurdish forces. That includes an estimated $89.3 million in weapons and other equipment to each of the nine Iraqi army brigades, according to a Pentagon document prepared in November.

At the meeting in London, where officials from 21 countries met to present a united front in the fight against the extremists in Syria and Iraq, Kerry said the coalition "can do better." British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond said Iraqi forces were in a "state of disarray" and "it will be months yet before they are ready to start significant combat operations" against the extremists.

"The trajectory of this fight ... will be neither short, nor easy. That has been a consistent statement," Kerry said at a news conference with al-Abadi and Hammond. "I don't think there's any undertaking in its early months where you can't do better and you can't find things you can't improve on."

After the meeting, al-Abadi said, "I have asked people for more support and I think my call didn't go unnoticed."

The growing Iraqi impatience in many ways stems from concerns about the speed and success of the Islamic State's advance, and the government's inexperience in handling a security crisis of this magnitude. Until recently, Iraqi security forces were focused on protecting against insurgent bombings and other attacks, not on repelling an advancing force or retaking areas seized by the militants.

The U.S. set up a joint-operations center so coalition officials could coordinate with the Iraqi Defense Ministry to identify the needs of Iraqi security forces, locate targets and streamline operations a concept that coalition officials say has not resonated with the Iraqi military.

Richard Brennan, a former Department of Defense policymaker now at RAND Corp., said the Iraqi military operates in "exactly the opposite" way to the Americans' more decentralized system, where "if you go to a U.S. army platoon, squad leaders do things independently."

"In the absence of directions, we find Iraqi subordinates are reluctant to take any action on their own for fear of doing something their commanders wouldn't approve," he said. "There's a paralysis in the ability of the Iraqi army to move."

By contrast, the militants of the Islamic State group appear to operate in a fluid, decentralized command structure that has enabled them to adapt quickly and more nimbly to the changing environment amid airstrikes and Iraqi and Kurdish ground offensives.

With the weapons they have seized over time mostly from defunct Iraqi battalions they have managed to make significant gains in Iraq's Anbar province, despite the airstrikes. They also continue to challenge strategic territories retaken by Iraqi security forces, including areas near the Mosul Dam and Beiji.

Militants used the breakdown of law and order in Syria's civil war to operate freely and set up unpoliced training camps where fighters from around the world could go to join the battle. Camps have emerged more recently in Iraq as the IS group gained territory.

Coalition officials say Iran's role in Iraq also imposes limitations on their mission.

Two to three Iranian military aircraft land at Baghdad airport a day, bringing in weapons and ammunition. The elite Quds Force of Iran's Revolutionary Guard and its commander, Gen. Ghasem Soleimani, are organizing Iraqi forces and have become the de facto leaders of Iraqi Shiite militias that are the backbone of the fight. Last month, Iran carried out airstrikes to help push militants from an Iraqi province on its border.

Iraqi government officials noted Iran's willingness to quickly accommodate requests for weapons and frontline assistance in the absence of faster support from the coalition. They have also claimed that coalition forces have provided more support to Kurdish fighters in semiautonomous northern Iraq. Last summer, the Kurdish capital of Irbil was within shelling distance when Islamic State fighters made a lightening advance across the country.

Canadian special forces in northern Iraq have been helping Kurdish peshmerga fighters by directing coalition airstrikes against Islamic State extremists work generally considered risky because it means they are close to the battle. Canadian soldiers this week traded fire with militants after coming under a mortar and machine gun attack while training on the front lines.

Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has repeatedly said the U.S. would consider directing attacks from the ground, but that it has not done so.

Iraqis have served as the forward air controllers for much of the coalition's mission thus far, but one of Iraq's top generals, speaking on condition of anonymity because he is not allowed to brief the media, told the AP he has grown frustrated because his tips for airstrike targets are frequently ignored.

Another, Lt. Gen. Abdul-Wahab al-Saadi, who led Iraqi soldiers to recapture the oil refinery city of Beiji, called U.S. air support erratic.

Even public perception toward the coalition mission has taken a turn in recent weeks, with reports and public statements highlighting alleged missteps.

Lawmaker Hassan Salem, a member of Iraq's Security and Defense Committee, alleged that "American planes are dropping food and weapons to Daesh," using the Arabic acronym for the Islamic State group, which is also known as ISIS and ISIL. He could not offer proof for his claims, saying only: "They deny it but we know it's happening."

At a news conference in Baghdad last week, Gen. John Allen, the U.S. envoy to the coalition, was asked by an Iraqi journalist about the same accusations.

"We are dropping weapons all over ISIL areas and we're dropping them on ISIL," Allen joked, then quickly turned serious. "That is not correct we are not supplying ISIL."


Associated Press writer Jill Lawless in London contributed to this story.


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