Iraq’s Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi pressed outgoing U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel on Tuesday for more air strikes and weaponry to accelerate what he called the “descent” of Islamic State.
The plea underscored tension in the U.S.-Iraqi relationship, with Baghdad pushing for more aggressive assistance than Washington has provided so far, four months after President Barack Obama launched air strikes against IS in Iraq.
“We are very thankful for the support that’s been given to us,” Abadi told Hagel as the two met at the prime minister’s offices in Baghdad’s fortified Green Zone. Islamic State was “on the descent at the moment”, he said.
“Our forces are very much advancing on the ground. But they need more air power and more … heavy weaponry. We need that.”
Hagel, addressing U.S. and Australian troops shortly after arriving in Iraq, said: “We have a role to play here but always our role has to be a support role… It is their country. They have to lead.”
Obama ordered U.S. troops out of Iraq in 2011 but started returning them this summer to help counter the advance of Islamic State. Last month he authorized roughly doubling the number of ground forces to 3,100 as the military expands the reach of its advisers and starts training Iraqi and Kurdish forces.
Hagel suggested that, in the U.S. view, success on the battlefield was only part of the answer. The key to progress was an inclusive government in Baghdad that could rally all Iraqis.
Since taking office in September, Shi’ite prime minister Abadi has worked to build alliances with Sunni tribes, and reached a deal on oil exports with the semi-autonomous Kurdish region after months of dispute.
Lieutenant General James Terry, the U.S. commander for Operation Inherent Resolve which is aimed at defeating Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, said Washington’s coalition allies would send about 1,500 troops to help train and advise local forces.
Since their June offensive, Islamic State’s Sunni militants have had little success breaking beyond the solidly Sunni Muslim provinces of Anbar in the west and Salahuddin north of Baghdad, as well as the strongly Sunni province of Nineveh, home to the city of Mosul which the Islamists overran in June.
Iraqi and Kurdish forces have made gains, including securing Mosul dam.
Terry said while the Islamic State still conducted limited attacks, the group appeared broadly “on the defense, trying to hold what they have gained”.
“When you look at some places out in Anbar, it’s a little bit stalemated out there. And we’ve got some work to do. And I think it’s do-able.”