Monday 23 April 2018

Pentagon chief Ash Carter visits Baghdad

US Defence Secretary Ash Carter, centre, arrives at Baghdad International Airport (AP)
US Defence Secretary Ash Carter, centre, arrives at Baghdad International Airport (AP)

US Defence Secretary Ash Carter has arrived for an unannounced visit to Baghdad to assess the government's progress in healing the country's sectarian divisions and the Iraqi army's coming attempt to recapture Ramadi from Islamic State.

It is Mr Carter's first visit to Iraq since he took office in February.

His first stop on the day-long visit was the Iraqi Counter-terrorism Service Academy. He spent about 20 minutes watching Iraqi soldiers in their trademark all-black uniforms manoeuvre and fire at silhouette targets at a firing range. Some wore partial or full face masks.

Mr Carter is not expected to announce any major change in US strategy or increase in American troop levels during his visit.

The 3,360 US troops currently in Iraq are largely involved in training Iraqi soldiers, advising Iraqi commanders on battle plans and providing security for American personnel and facilities. The US, joined by several coalition partners, is also conducting air strikes daily to chip away at the Islamic State's grip on large parts of Iraq.

The visit, however, comes at an important moment for the Iraqi government, which has announced a counter-offensive to retake Ramadi, the capital of Anbar province.

The actual assault on the city has not yet begun, but Pentagon spokesman Army Col Steve Warren said it could start within weeks.

The Ramadi campaign will be a crucial test not only for the Iraqi government led by prime minister Haider al-Abadi but also for the US strategy of relying on Iraqi security forces, operating in co-ordination with coalition air strikes, to overcome the smaller Islamic State forces.

President Barack Obama has opted not to commit US ground combat forces to Iraq, saying the only lasting solution is for Iraq to fight for itself.

After Iraqi troops abandoned Ramadi in early May, handing the Islamic State its biggest battlefield victory of 2015, Mr Carter caused a stir in Iraq when he said its army "just showed no will to fight". That frank assessment exposed a central Iraqi weakness born of the country's sectarian split.

Mr Carter noted then that the Iraqi forces were not outnumbered in Ramadi, yet they abandoned their weapons and equipment, including dozens of American-supplied tanks, armoured fighting vehicles and artillery pieces. They became part of the Islamic State's arsenal and were then targeted in US air strikes.

The Islamic State will again be outnumbered when, as expected, the Iraqi army makes a renewed assault on Ramadi.

Col Warren, the Pentagon spokesman who is travelling with Mr Carter, said there are between 1,000 and 2,000 Islamic State fighters in Ramadi. He would not say how many Iraqi troops are likely to undertake the Ramadi counter-offensive, but he said there are "several thousand" available in the area right now.

Col Warren said Iraqi security forces are currently carrying out "isolation operations" around Ramadi, meaning they are cutting off avenues of Islamic State resupply and reinforcement. Although under Iraqi command, the battle plan has been shaped to some degree by American advisers.

"We are beginning to isolate Ramadi from multiple directions," Col Warren said, "to place a noose around the city". At a later stage - the timing of which he would not predict - the assault phase of the campaign will begin.

Mr Carter told the Iraqi counter-terrorism commanders: "Your forces have performed so very well, so very bravely. And I know that you have suffered great losses too, but I just wanted to tell you that it is very clear to us in Washington what a capable force this is. So it's a privilege for us to be your partners."

Press Association

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