MACDILL AIR FORCE BASE, Fla. — American airstrikes have helped the Iraqi military stall the advance of Islamic State militants, but it will be months before government forces are ready to mount a counteroffensive to reclaim lost territory, U.S. officials said here Thursday.
That assessment, from military and defense officials speaking on the condition of anonymity, came the same day that Iraqi Defense Minister Khaled al-Obeidi told Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel by phone that his troops would go on the offensive against the insurgents who sent the Iraqi military fleeing earlier this year. Al-Obeidi offered no timetable for the offensive.
According to Pentagon press secretary Rear Adm. John Kirby, Obeidi said he intends to rebuild the Iraqi military and ensure troops are well-trained and equipped. Kirby said the minister promised to build an inclusive army that Iraqi people of all ethnicities could trust.
As of Thursday, the U.S. and its partners had flown some 6,600 sorties in operations against Islamic State fighters in Iraq and Syria, according to U.S. Central Command. Of 623 airstrikes, 553 were flown by the United States and the remainder flown by nine other nations.
The Pentagon says the attacks have killed hundreds of insurgents. A human rights group, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said this week that U.S.-led strikes have killed more than 500 militants and 32 civilians.
Critics of the U.S. air campaign have complained that the pace of operations is too tentative. Last month on Twitter, retired Air Force Lt. Gen. David A. Deptula, former air commander for the Afghanistan war, called for “a thunderstorm not a drizzle of air power against ISIL” — another term for the Islamic State.
But officials who spoke to reporters Thursday at Central Command headquarters at MacDill said the U.S. is striking Islamic State insurgents whenever it finds them.
Insurgents operate as a “hybrid” of a terror group and a conventional army, and when they are in terrorist mode, Islamic State fighters can be hard to spot. Also, because of the air campaign, extremist fighters are operating less openly than they did when they swept across Iraq earlier this year, officials say.
The U.S. and its partners move in for a kill when they have a solid target based on airborne surveillance, because there are no U.S. forward air controllers in the field. In Iraq on Wednesday and Thursday, that resulted in nine airstrikes: four near the Mosul Dam, one near Beiji and four in and around Fallujah.
“Where we see ISIL moving, we strike them,” a military official said, using the government’s preferred term for the Islamic State. “Every day there’s a balance between where our ISR is, and frankly, we don’t strike just because somebody says there’s a bad guy around the corner.”
The Iraqi military, left reeling by Islamic State advances in the spring and summer, is conducting small-scale local counteroffensives, a military official said. They aren’t yet capable of a nationwide push to defeat the Islamic State but are getting closer.
“We think it’s well within their capability to be able to do that within the order of months, and not years,” the military official said.
Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, is an insurgent stronghold that Iraqi forces might not be ready to take on for a year, the official conceded. The militants are fighting hard to keep lines of communication and supply to Mosul open and are defending against a northward push from Iraqi forces through the increased use of improvised explosive devices and vehicle-borne IEDs, a defense official said Thursday.
In the meantime, the Iraqi military has been concentrating on stopping further Islamic State advances. As long as the Iraqis are not on the march, the pace of airstrikes will reflect their lack of movement, a military official at CENTCOM headquarters said.
The U.S. and its partners, the official said, are mounting airstrikes “operating at a pace in support of the ground forces that are on the ground.”
Iraq’s Anbar province remains a contested area, but many of the Islamic State operations mounted there have been ineffective, a military official said. Islamic State propagandists are skilled at inflating the group’s successes to create an illusion of the inevitability of victory, a military official said.
The U.S. strategy is to convince local populations the militants aren’t invincible.
“The tribes have to believe that ISIL can be defeated, because that’s a key point of their decision-making process,” the official said. “That’s happening now in tactical instances on the battlefield.”
A military official didn’t rule out advisers at the battalion level in Anbar but said no U.S. troops would be involved in combat.
Some 1,400 U.S. troops are deployed to Iraq, with 600 of them working as advisers in Baghdad and Irbil in support of Iraqi and Kurdish forces.
“When are we going to put advisers out in Anbar? I can’t tell you when,” the official said. “But I can tell you that there’s a whole lot of discussion and planning going on to how we can continue as the Iraqis’ move forward on their plan, how can we continue to enable them as far forward as we can.”
The official added that the United States has been speaking with allies about the possibility of other countries putting advisers on the ground but offered no details on the discussions.
In Syria, where the United States and allies plan to recruit and train vetted opposition fighters to oppose the Islamic State, a U.S.-backed force might not be ready to go on the offensive for a year or more, a U.S. official said.
But the U.S. and its partners, meanwhile, have seen some success supporting existing Kurdish forces in the Syrian city of Kobani, near the Turkish border. Almost 150 coalition airstrikes and a U.S. airdrop of supplies have helped the defenders of the town hold off militants.
Street-to-street fighting continues, but Kurdish fighters tenaciously hold much of the town — a daily demonstration for observers in Iraq and Syria that the Islamic State can be defied.
“Today looks better than yesterday,” the official said, “but again, it’s a slog in that town.”