WASHINGTON — Looking to boost Iraqi fighting forces, President Barack Obama said the U.S. and its allies need to examine whether they are deploying military assets effectively against Islamic State militants as Iraq mounts a new offensive to recapture critical territory west of Baghdad.
The White House says it already is responding to demands by Iraqi fighters for more powerful anti-tank weapons to confront armored vehicles that the Islamic State has used as potent and deadly car bombs. But officials stressed the examination did not represent a reassessment of the U.S. military approach to the fight against the militants.
"We continue to have confidence in the strategy," White House spokesman Josh Earnest said. "This is not a fight the U.S. is going to fight for the Iraqi people."
The U.S. attention to supplying higher-grade military equipment came after Defense Secretary Ash Carter over the weekend criticized Iraqi forces, saying their men fled the Islamic State advance on Ramadi without fighting back.
White House spokesman Josh Earnest defended Carter's remarks, saying the Iraqi government acknowledged that the setback in Ramadi was the result of a breakdown in command and planning. Moreover, Earnest said, the Iraqi forces in Ramadi had not benefited from U.S. or allied training.
Obama, speaking at the end of a meeting with visiting NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, did not respond to questions about Carter's comments. But he did say the challenge posed by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria and the turmoil in Libya have forced NATO to look south as well as east in the alliance's mission.
"That means an increase in defense capacity building with other countries like Iraq or (Persian Gulf) countries that are interested in working with us, as well as the African Union," he said. "It also means we have to think about whether we are deploying and arranging our assets effectively to meet that challenge."
Asked to elaborate on the president's comments, Earnest said: "There have been some concerns raised by some fighters that they have not gotten the kind of equipment that they need to fight ISIL."
"The president and the rest of the administration have vowed to work closely with the Iraq government to make sure that this military equipment is getting got where it is needed," he said.
Earnest praised Iraq's announcement that it had launched a major military operation to drive the Islamic State from the western Anbar province. The Iraqi troops are out to retake the Sunni heartland where the extremist group captured the provincial capital of Ramadi.
"I think that is a clear indication of the will of the Iraqi security forces to fight," Earnest said. "And the United States and our coalition partners will stand with them as they do so."
Obama said the upheaval in the Middle East and the "increasingly aggressive posture that Russia has taken" in Ukraine has created a "challenging and important time for NATO." He said NATO would continue to support Ukraine.
Obama said NATO would be a crucial player in providing training and assistance to Afghanistan following the drawdown of NATO troops. He said it was important that NATO countries properly contribute to that post-draw-down mission.