The US military's top officer said Thursday that Iraqi forces had shored up their defenses around Baghdad but would need outside help to eventually regain territory lost to Sunni militants.
General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, said American advisers were still evaluating the state of the Iraqi army, and he suggested US military action was not imminent.
Dempsey told a news conference that Iraqi forces were not yet in a position to stage a major counter-offensive after being driven back by Sunni extremists in recent weeks.
US military advisers in the capital found that Iraqi security forces are "stiffening, that they're capable of defending Baghdad," Dempsey said.
However, they also found the Iraqi forces "would be challenged to go on the offense, mostly logistically challenged."
"If you are asking me will the Iraqis, at some point, be able to go back on the offensive to recapture the part of Iraq that they've lost... probably not by themselves," he said.
But the Iraqi army's shortcomings did not necessarily mean the United States would have to take military action, he said.
"I'm not suggesting that that's the direction this is headed."
About 200 US military advisers have deployed to Baghdad to assess the state of the Iraqi army and the threat posed by the Islamic State (IS) jihadists, who have seized control in areas north and west of Baghdad.
The advisory teams have set up command centers in Baghdad as well as in Erbil in the north, he said.
Apart from the advisers, nearly 500 US troops have been sent to Iraq to bolster security at the American embassy and parts of the Baghdad airport.
- 'Very different' US role -
Dempsey and Pentagon chief Chuck Hagel both insisted that the US troops in Iraq had no combat mission but left open the possibility that President Barack Obama might opt to order air strikes against the IS extremists in the future.
Dempsey said the role of American troops in Baghdad was "very different" than in the past, when US forces invaded Iraq in 2003 and waged war against insurgents until withdrawing in 2011.
"I mean, assessing, advising and enabling are very different roads than attacking, defeating and disrupting," he said.
That could change if the threat posed by IS militants led the US president to order military action, he said.
"I'm just suggesting to you we're not there yet," said Dempsey, who led combat troops during the US war in Iraq.
The four-star general also said that US military assistance might not require an "industrial-strength effort" to aid the Iraqi forces. Instead, smaller scale aid could be successful if Baghdad could isolate the IS jihadists from other Sunni groups.
He warned that an Iraqi military campaign designed to roll back the Islamist militants would take time to develop and would have to be accompanied by clear signals from the Shiite-led government in Baghdad that it is ready to reach out to Sunni and Kurdish communities.
Dempsey said "the first step in developing that campaign is to determine whether we have a reliable Iraqi partner that is committed to growing their country into something that all Iraqis will be willing to participate in.
"If the answer to that is 'no,' then the future's pretty bleak."
The White House also issued a call for unity on Thursday, offering a cool reception to a proposed independence referendum for Iraq's Kurds.
Massud Barzani, leader of the autonomous region, earlier told parliament to make preparations for a "referendum on the right of self-determination."
The US government showed no enthusiasm for the idea and has been working behind the scenes to try to persuade Iraq's Sunni, Shiite and Kurdish leaders to form a unified government in Baghdad.
"The fact is that we continue to believe that Iraq is stronger if it is united," said White House spokesman Josh Earnest.
"That is why the United States continues to support an Iraq that is democratic, pluralistic and unified, and we are going to continue to urge all parties in Iraq to continue working together toward that objective," Earnest said.