Defense Secretary Ash Carter told the House Armed Services Committee on Wednesday that training efforts in Iraq so far have been "slowed" by a lack of Iraqi volunteers, sparking concerns about how effective those security forces can be in pushing back the advancing enemy.

U.S. officials had hoped to train about 24,000 new Iraqi fighters by this fall but so far have seen only a third of that total in the four training sites set up across the country.

"As I've told Iraqi leaders, while the United States is open to supporting Iraq more than we already are, we must see a greater commitment from all parts of the Iraqi government," Carter said.

The comments drew concerns from both sides of the politically divided Armed Services Committee, with some half arguing for a stronger American presence in the region and others half voicing concern about a slow, endless increase of U.S. forces into the conflict.

Earlier this month, President Obama announced plans to send 450 U.S. personnel to Iraq's military base in Anbar province to set up a new training site with local security forces.

The move brings the total U.S. troops on the ground in Iraq to more than 3,500, all ostensibly assigned to assistance and not combat roles. Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, told committee members that while airstrikes have provided invaluable support to Iraqi forces, he still would not recommend American troops fighting on the ground there.

"Could we go in there and do a better job against ISIL ourselves? Absolutely," he said, using an alternative acronym of the Islamic State group. "But we'd be back there in two years."

Dempsey and Carter both said the way to defeat the Islamic State insurgents cannot simply be another U.S. military operation. Rather, they unfolded a multipoint plan to lawmakers that includes slow political and cultural changes in the region.

When asked directly if the fight is turning into another endless quagmire, both officials acknowledged significant military setbacks among Iraqi forces but said the U.S. training and assistance work has been successful so far.

"Some (Iraqi) units have fought admirably and relentlessly," Carter said. "The essence of our strategy is not to have U.S. forces substitute for capable local forces."

Still, after nearly a year of airstrikes in the region, Islamic State fighters appear resilient. Last month, militants captured the major city of Ramadi, a setback that Carter acknowledged was "deeply disappointing."

He said the new training site in Anbar province should help pull in more Sunni recruits to fight in that region, but lawmakers questioned whether the small U.S. force increase will have any significant impact in the larger fight.

"It's hard to see how 400 more troops will help turn the tide," said Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, the committee chairman. "The situation in (the Middle East) has deteriorated substantially in the last six years, and there seems to be nothing coming from the White House to change that trajectory."

But Carter said he expects the new forces to show results within a few weeks, especially as they reach across religious lines to help make the Iraqi security forces more inclusive. He said Iraqi government efforts to pull in new recruits have stepped up in recent weeks, with positive results.

"Now that things are turning around, we need to make sure they stay turned around," he said.

Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.

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