Iraqi forces are capable of eventually defeating the Islamic State, the nominee to lead the Marine Corps told lawmakers Thursday, despite describing the current fight as a “stalemate.”
Lt. Gen. Robert Neller said the U.S. is already “doing what we need to do right now” in the fight against the Islamic State by training and advising Iraqis as well as providing weapons and equipment to them. The only thing the U.S. has not committed, he said, is actually sending troops into combat on the ground alongside Iraqis.
“At the end of the day, whether we do or not, they are the ones who are going to have to do this,” Marine Corps Commandant nominee Lt. Gen. Neller told members of the Senate Armed Services Committee. “I believe based on what I’ve seen in the past that they have the capability to do that.”
Mr. Neller’s assessment is in direct contrast to public statements made by Pentagon chief Ashton Carter in May, when the Iraqi army fell to the Islamic State, or ISIS, in Ramadi. At the time, Mr. Carter said: “What apparently happened is the Iraqi forces just showed no will to fight. They were not outnumbered. That says to me, and I think to most of us, that we have an issue with the will of the Iraqis to fight [ISIS] and defend themselves.”
In a surprise visit to Iraq on Thursday, Mr. Carter was told by advisers that 3,000 newly installed, coalition-trained Iraqi forces have joined the fight to retake Ramadi, which still remains under ISIS control.
Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican and chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, harshly criticized Mr. Neller’s characterization of the fight against the Islamic State, saying that it’s obvious the terrorist group is winning and controlling large areas of land.
“I’m very disappointed in a number of your answers,” Mr. McCain said.
While previous nominees who appeared before the committee have named Russia as the greatest threat to the U.S., Lt. Gen. Neller said violent extremist groups pose the greatest threat to the American people.
“I believe that the greatest threat to the American people, because they say they want to kill us, is radical extremism,” he said.
He acknowledged that Russia does have the greatest military capability, but said the Russians have not shown the intent to attack and kill Americans in the same way violent extremist groups have publicly declared that as their mission.
“Right now I don’t think they want to fight us,” he said. “Violent extremists want to kill us. Their capability is not that great, but their intent is high.”
Other nominees for top military posts, including Marine Corps Gen. Joseph Dunford to be chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Air Force Gen. Paul Selva to be vice chairman and Army Gen. Mark Milley to be chief of staff of the Army, all named Russia as the top threat to the U.S.
The Senate Armed Services Committee approved the nominations of Gen. Dunford and Gen. Selva, as well as Gen. Darren McDew to lead U.S. Transportation Command, early Thursday morning and sent them to the full Senate for a vote.
Iraqi Security Forces are beginning a new effort to retake the key city of Ramadi, which fell into terrorist control in May. After weeks of shaping operations on the outskirts of the city, Iraqi forces are starting isolation operations, meant to cut off the flow of people or resources in and out of the city to prevent the enemy from resupplying or escaping, said Col. Steve Warren, a Pentagon spokesman.
“Iraqi Security Forces are positioning themselves at various locations around Ramadi in essence to place a noose around the city,” Col. Warren said during a briefing Wednesday in Saudi Arabia.
Lawmakers also used the nomination hearing to question Lt. Gen. Neller about the effects of sequestration, how to retain the best Marines and his response to calls for better base security after last week’s shooting in Chattanooga that killed four Marines and one sailor in two shootings at a Navy support center and a recruiting office.
Both locations were off military bases, prompting many to call for increased security at military facilities that don’t have the protection of an installation.
Several lawmakers have called for troops to be able to carry personal firearms for protection in the wake of the attack, and at least half a dozen governors have ordered their states’ National Guard to be armed.
Lt. Gen. Neller said that the military should look at arming its troops, but said it would be the most “extreme” step to take. He acknowledged other fortifications, like bulletproof glass, could keep troops safer, but said recruiters, whose offices are designed to be open to all, must still be able to interact with the public.
“We need to stay connected to the American people, so whatever we do has to ensure we can continue to go to schools and find the best men and women,” he said.
Defense Secretary Mr. Carter ordered the department to review security and how to keep troops safer in the wake of the attack. He asked for results of that review by the end of this week.
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