Washington: The commander of the US war against Islamic State jihadists said Thursday the key to winning the fight will be ending Baghdad`s sectarian rule, not how many American troops are on the ground.
General Lloyd Austin, who runs the air war against the IS group as head of Central Command, said he would be prepared to recommend more US troops if he concluded it was necessary, but stressed the Iraqi government`s treatment of Sunnis would be the decisive factor in the outcome of the conflict.
"But I`ll tell you sir, if the governmental piece of this doesn`t work, if the Iraqi leadership cannot find themselves to be inclusive of the Sunnis and the Kurds, no matter how many troops you put on the ground, this is not going to work," Austin said at an event organized by the Atlantic Council think tank.
But Austin said he was hopeful a new government under Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi would reach out to the disaffected Sunni community, and that the situation in Iraq would be "different" this time than it was for American forces occupying the country from 2003 to 2011.
"I think this is different. I think it`s different because number one there is a different government in place and I think the Iraqis should have learned from the lessons of the past," Austin said.
"I think the initial indications that I`m seeing from Prime Minister Abadi and from the minister of defense are very positive."
The four-star general said the IS group was able to sweep through Iraq partly by taking advantage of the Sunni population`s alienation from Baghdad`s Shiite-dominated government.
"Absent resistance from the Sunnis who viewed ISIL (IS) as a vehicle for bringing about change in their government, Sunnis simply refused to fight," he said.
About 1,400 US troops are now deployed in Iraq, with roughly 600 advisers assisting Iraqi and Kurdish forces and 800 forces protecting the American embassy and the Baghdad airport.
For their part, US forces are trying to apply lessons learned from the last mission in Iraq, he said.
"The first lesson is to not alienate the people that you`re trying to help," he said.
"And so from the very start we were very careful about our air campaign in terms of who we were killing and who we were not killing."
Austin said he was not aware of any confirmed case of civilian deaths from the air campaign launched on August 8, which has involved hundreds of bombing raids and more than a thousand bombs and missiles.
However, independent rights groups have reported civilian casualties from some strikes.