WASHINGTON - The US military's top officer on Thursday called for deploying American advisers to Iraq's Anbar province to counter Islamic State jihadists, but said the Baghdad government must first arm local Sunni tribes.
General Martin Dempsey's comments marked the first time the American military openly endorsed sending advisers to the restive western province, where Iraqi government troops have suffered a string of setbacks at the hands of the IS group.
Sending in advisory teams to Anbar would signal an escalation in the US military mission in Iraq and could put American troops at higher risk, given the foothold established by the IS group in the area, analysts say.
Due to recent IS gains, "we need to expand the train, advise and assist mission into al-Anbar province, but the precondition for that is that the government of Iraq is willing to arm the tribes," Dempsey told a news conference.
"By the way, we have positive indications that they (Iraqi government) are. But we haven't begun to do it yet."
The US military has sent about 600 advisers to Baghdad and Arbil in the north to assist Iraqi and Kurdish forces and coordinate US-led air raids against IS.
The advisers are not heading into combat with Iraqi or Kurdish units but working with senior officers.
President Barack Obama has vowed he will not order a large force into combat in Iraq or Syria, relying instead on air power and local forces.
But his "no boots on the ground" pledge is coming under pressure amid growing calls for advisers and forward air controllers to deploy with Iraqi or Kurdish soldiers to help direct air raids and plan operations.
US officials have been dismayed at the state of the Iraqi army, with officers saying privately that the force was mismanaged in recent years and qualified commanders pushed aside for political loyalists.
The United States invested more than $20 billion (S$25.55 billion) in the training and arming of the Iraq military from 2003 to 2011, when the American occupation ended.
The Iraqi army's humiliating retreat against IS fighters in the north and west earlier this year came as a crushing disappointment to US military officers.
The Obama administration says it plans to bolster the Iraqi army with fresh training and weapons, while also helping Baghdad build a Sunni "national guard" in the west.
Officers at US Central Command, which oversees the air war, say Sunni tribes in Anbar are not yet poised for a major uprising against the IS and that the plans for forming a local militia are at a preliminary stage.
Dempsey discussed the potential advisory mission in Anbar after he was asked about recent US airdrops of aid to a Sunni tribe near al-Asad air base that was forced to flee their homes in Heet in the face of advancing IS militants.