U.S. personnel at al Taqaddum air base in Iraq are beginning to train Sunni leaders in basic soldiering to help defeat the Islamic State, a defense official said Friday.
Marine Brig. Gen. Thomas Weidley, chief of staff for Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve, said those Sunni leaders can then return to their tribes to pass along the skills they learned in a “train the trainers”-type system.
“We provide the expertise to the tribal trainers and then the tribal trainers will go ahead and conduct training with their individual forces,” he told reporters via video from southwest Asia. “Those subject matter expert exchanges have already commenced at Taqaddum.”
The administration announced earlier this month that 450 additional U.S. personnel were heading to al Taqaddum air base to facilitation relations between the Shiite Iraqi central government and Sunni fighters. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter told lawmakers this week that they could expect to see progress in recruiting more Sunni fighters within “weeks.”
Gen. Weidley said that both the recruiting and vetting of Sunni tribal fighters is done by the Iraqi government, not by U.S. or coalition forces.
Five hundred Sunnis were inducted into the Iraqi Popular Mobilization Force in a ceremony at the base Wednesday, he said — a sign that the U.S. presence is helping to bridge the sectarian divide.
When asked specifically about previous comments he made that the Islamic State was on the defense just days before Ramadi fell into terrorist control, Gen. Weidley pointed to recent successes by anti-Islamic State forces in Syria and Iraq. He also said civilians are finally returning to Tikrit this week, which was uninhabitable for months after being reclaimed by Iraqi forces due to improvised explosive devices throughout the city.
“When I look at the battlespace and all those individual efforts, we see great things happening out there,” he said.
Gen. Weidley also provided updates on other key battles in Ramadi and Baiji where Iraqi forces are still struggling to drive terrorists out of the cities.
In Baiji, he said Iraqi forces are “making steady progress” clearing the city. He also said Iraqi forces have opened a key supply route to the oil refinery north of the city to resupply forces there.
In Ramadi, Iraqis are working to improve organization and command and control assets to help prepare for future operations. Shaping operations on the ground are ongoing, including security communications channels and roadways, collecting intelligence and rehearsing assaults.
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