U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said the U.S. military is starting its program to train and advise Iraqi forces ahead of schedule in an effort to accelerate efforts in the fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), Al Arabiya reported.
U.S. special operations troops are in Iraq's western Anbar province where they began training and advising Iraqi government forces, Hagel said, without adding details, the Associated Press reported.
The acceleration of plans comes after it was recommended by Gen. Lloyd Austin, commander of U.S. Central Command, Hagel told reporters after observing Army training in California's Mojave Desert.
The U.S. plans on training nine Iraqi security forces brigades in addition to three Kurdish Peshmerga brigades.
Pentagon spokesman Navy Rear Adm. John Kirby said later that Austin believes getting an early start on training Iraqi forces in Anbar may prompt other countries with a stake in the fight against ISIS to commit trainers to Iraq.
Approaching the problem of ill-trained and poorly motivated Iraqi soldiers as a coalition rather than as a unilateral U.S. undertaking is a key pillar of U.S. strategy. Partnership is seen as a way of undermining the ideological appeal of Islamic State.
Kirby said that a number of countries have made verbal commitments to provide training but are yet to announce it publicly, barring his ability to identify these states.
The U.S. announced earlier this month that it will send another 1,500 troops to Iraq to expand training and advising of Iraqi security forces. But those troops have not yet departed the U.S., leaving some to question how urgently Washington viewed the mission.
The special operation troops currently in Anbar's al-Asad air base are operating in 12-man advisory teams and have been in Iraq since last summer.
Kirby said about 50 are now at al-Asad, which was a major air hub for U.S. forces during the 2003-11 war.
ISIS holds key cities in Anbar, including Fallujah.
During his stop at Fort Irwin to see Army desert training, Hagel gave a pep talk to a few hundred soldiers. One asked Hagel when the U.S. was going to send an invasion force to Iraq to fight ISIS.
Hagel said that was not in the cards, echoing President Barack Obama's belief that it would make no sense.
"This has to be an Iraqi effort," Hagel said, adding: "It is their country. They have to do this themselves."
Hagel said he planned to speak Monday with Gen. Martin Dempsey, the Joint Chiefs chairman who spent the weekend in Iraq.