Iraq appeals to US for more air power and weapons
BAGHDAD - Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi appealed to US Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel on Tuesday for more air raids from Western warplanes and more arms to take on the Islamic State group.
"Our forces are very much advancing on the ground. But they need more air power and more ... heavy weaponry. We need that," Abadi told Hagel at the start of their talks in the Iraqi capital.
His request highlighted a disagreement over war strategy between Baghdad and Washington, with the Americans favouring a more limited air campaign until Iraqi forces are ready to hold on to territory and organise major offensives.
Abadi told Hagel as their meeting began that IS "is on the descent at the moment" and that their capabilities had been weakened.
"We are very thankful for the support that's been given to us," Abadi said.
Hagel made an unannounced trip to Baghdad as the United States and its allies ramped up their role in the fight against IS, with plans to expand the training of Iraqi forces.
He insisted it was up to the Iraqis themselves to win the war against the jihadists.
Washington has forged an alliance of Western and Arab countries that has launched air strikes against IS after the extremist group seized swathes of territory in Iraq and Syria and declared an Islamic "caliphate".
The United States will be doubling the number of its troops in Iraq helping government forces to 3,100, and on Monday the American commander of the war effort said allies were also ready to send roughly 1,500 security personnel.
But, speaking to a group of US and Australian troops soon after he landed, Hagel said the outcome of the campaign would ultimately depend on the Baghdad government.
"It's their country, they have to lead, they're the ones who are going to have to be responsible for end results," he said.
"We can help, we can train, we can assist, we can advise -- we're doing that."
The Iraqi leadership will need to build an inclusive government that wins the trust of all the country's religious and ethnic communities, he said.
Support for IS has been in part fuelled by complaints from Iraq's Sunni minority of being excluded from power by the country's Shiite majority.
US and allied warplanes have launched more than 1,200 air strikes against jihadists in Iraq and Syria since August 8.
Washington also has about 1,500 troops in Iraq providing security for the American embassy and advising the Baghdad government's army and Kurdish forces.
Last month President Barack Obama approved the deployment of another 1,500 troops to bolster the training and advising effort across the country.
Hagel is on his first trip to Iraq since taking over as Pentagon chief in February 2013. It is also set to be his last visit to the country before he stands down.
Hagel announced his resignation last month, rejecting accounts that he was forced out and saying it was a mutual agreement with Obama.
He arrived in Iraq from Kuwait, where US Lieutenant General James Terry on Monday told reporters that members of the coalition meeting last week in the region made initial pledges that would bring "close" to 1,500 additional forces to Iraq to train and assist the country's army.
Terry did not indicate which countries from the coalition would provide the security personnel or how many of them would be in uniform or otherwise.
He said "the large percentage" of the personnel to be deployed would be training Iraqi troops.
Terry, who oversees the war against IS, said Iraqi security forces were steadily improving but remained months away from staging large-scale offensives that could roll back the militants.
"While they still have a long way to go I think they're becoming more capable every day," he said.
He said that the daily air strikes had limited the fighters' mobility and disrupted sanctuaries in Syria.
The militants are "on the defence, trying to hold what they had gained but still able to conduct some limited attacks out there."
The general's remarks echoed comments earlier in Kuwait by Hagel, who said Iraqi government troops were increasingly taking the fight to the jihadists.
Air power and other support from the US-led coalition "has in effect allowed the Iraqi security forces to take back some ground," Hagel said during a visit to a US base in Kuwait.
"It's given them some new momentum, organisation, structure."