By Phil Stewart
US Defense Secretary Ash Carter made a surprise visit to Baghdad on Thursday to get a first-hand assessment of the campaign against Islamic State as Iraq tries to retake the fallen capital of Sunni-dominated Anbar province.
Carter, on his first visit since becoming defense secretary in February, said he would meet US commanders as well as Iraqi political leaders, including Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi.
His unannounced visit coincides with attempts by Iraqi forces to lay the groundwork for an eventual push to try to recapture Ramadi, isolating parts of the city with help from US-led air strikes ahead of a full offensive.
Islamic State seized Anbar’s capital Ramadi two months ago, extending its control over the Euphrates valley west of Baghdad and dealing a major setback to Abadi and the US-backed army he entrusted with its defence.
Carter said he sought to form “my own on-the-ground assessment of the campaign”.
“I will be doing my own conferring with our military commanders,” Carter told reporters ahead of his trip.
The loss of Ramadi was the Iraqi army’s worst defeat since Islamic State militants swept through north Iraq last summer.
The onslaught further exposed the shortcomings of Iraq’s mainly Shi’ite forces and raised questions about the ability of the Shi’ite-led government in Baghdad to overcome the sectarian divide that has helped fuel the Islamic State’s expansion in Anbar.
US President Barack Obama responded last month by ordering 450 more US troops to set up at Taqaddum base, which is closer to the fighting in Anbar province and only about 15 miles (25 km) from Ramadi.
One of the goals of a new US deployment to Taqaddum is to encourage Sunni tribes to join the battle against Islamic State, complementing efforts at the Ain al-Asad air base, also in Anbar.
A Pentagon spokesman estimated that as many as 1,800 Sunni recruits had been trained at Taqaddum since the base was set up.
The Sunni forces will play a key role in helping secure terrain but are not expected to lead any advance into Ramadi, something that could happen within the next two months, depending on Iraq’s own assessments, the spokesman said.
Carter said he would also meet Sunni leaders during his trip to Iraq, noting Sunni participation in the campaign would be critical to its success.
A senior US defense official said Iraq had shown some “positive momentum” in its engagement with Sunnis in the past months. Carter aimed to build on it, the official said.
Anbar’s dominant Sunni population resented former Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s government, which it accused of promoting Shi’ite interests and suppressing Sunnis.