US defense chief visits Iraq for talks on war against ISIL

US defense chief visits Iraq for talks on war against ISIL

BAGHDAD - Agence France-Presse
US defense chief visits Iraq for talks on war against ISIL

U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter (R) and Gen. Taleb Shegati al-Kenani, commander of Iraq's Counter-Terrorism forces (C) look over diagrams and maps at the Combined Joint Operations Center in Baghdad, Iraq July 23, 2015. REUTERS photo

Pentagon chief Ashton Carter flew to Baghdad Thursday for talks on Iraq’s war against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) group, whose “caliphate” is shrinking but is ramping up deadly car bombings.

Carter was to meet Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi and Sunni Arab tribal leaders from Anbar, the province where much of the fighting has taken place in recent weeks.

During his brief visit, which had not been announced in advance for security reasons, Carter will also meet some of the 3,500 U.S. troops deployed to train and advise Iraqi forces.

Current military efforts against IS, which took over close to a third of Iraq last year, are focusing on Anbar, where US forces faced their toughest battles during their eight-year occupation of the country.

The international coalition led by the United States has conducted thousands of air strikes against IS in Iraq and Syria over the past year.

Lately dozens of strikes have hit targets in Anbar every week, as Iraqi forces press a sweeping offensive to regain ground in the province, whose capital Ramadi was seized by ISIL in May.

Pentagon spokesman Colonel Steve Warren, who is travelling with Carter, said efforts in Anbar were focused on isolating Ramadi. He put the number of jihadist fighters defending the city at 1,000 to 2,000.

He would not say when he thought a drive to wrest the city back from ISIL might be launched in earnest but said it should be a matter of “weeks.”

Several hundred U.S. troops are helping Iraqi forces train local Sunni Arab tribesmen at a large base in Habbaniyah, between Ramadi and the jihadists’ other Anbar bastion of Fallujah.

Warren said 1,800 tribal fighters had already received training and equipment under the program.

Baghdad’s other main partner in the fight against ISIL is Tehran, which also has advisers on the ground and directly supports the powerful Shiite militias now playing a lead role in the military effort.

Iran is not part of the coalition, and while this month’s historic nuclear deal opened a new chapter in relations between Tehran and Washington, their coexistence on Iraq’s battlefield remains uneasy.

The Iraqi army, backed by Washington, wants to take back Ramadi first, but the Hashed al-Shaabi - an umbrella organization for Tehran-backed groups that Abadi only nominally controls - has made Fallujah its priority.

After initially expanding in the wake of its proclamation of a “caliphate” over parts of Iraq and Syria last summer, the group led by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi has seen the internationally supported Iraqi fight-back roll back its borders.

The jihadists are also under pressure in Syria, where they have lost several key areas along the border with Turkey.

Observers have warned that as military pressure on ISIL mounts in the battlefield, the group risks reverting to its old tactics of hit-and-run attacks and car bombs.

It claimed one of the biggest suicide car bomb attacks in Iraq’s bloody history last week when around 120 people were killed by a blast that ripped through a market in the town of Khan Bani Saad, just north of Baghdad.

The town is located in Diyala province, which has a border with Iran. The government announced it had “liberated” it in January but it has since struggled to restore stability there.