Iraq’s prime minister was requesting more airpower from the United States to bolster the offensive against Islamic State militants, as U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel began an unannounced visit to Baghdad on Tuesday.
In a meeting with Hagel, Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said increased airstrikes from a U.S.-led coalition and additional heavy weaponry would accelerate the progress Iraqi ground troops are making against the ultra-radical group.
“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.
More support requested
The Islamic State group is “on the descent at the moment,” Abadi said. “Our forces are very much advancing on the ground. But they need more air power and more … heavy weaponry. We need that.”
The Iraqi leader’s plea underscores tensions in the U.S.-Iraqi relationship, with Baghdad pushing for more aggressive assistance than Washington has provided so far.
Hagel’s trip comes four months after the United States began the air campaign against Islamic State positions in Iraq, later expanding the strikes to a second front in neighboring Syria. Recently, Iraqi government forces, Kurdish Peshmerga fighters and Sunni tribesmen have made minor gains across the country in beating back the militants.
Iraq “needs more Abrams tanks, Bradley fighting vehicles, Stryker anti-tank guided missile vehicles and reconnaissance vehicles,” the former Iraqi national security adviser, Dr. Mowaffak al Rubaie, told VOA.
He pointed out that the Obama administration has told Congress it plans to sell $1.2 billion worth of tank ammunition, maintenance services and precision weapons under the Foreign Military Sales program, and also has accelerated the sale of thousands of Hellfire missiles.
Hagel: Iraq has to lead
Upon arriving in Baghdad, Hagel told a group of American and Australian troops that it is ultimately up to Iraqis to defend and support themselves.
“Just as in Afghanistan, it is their country, they have to lead, they are the ones [who] are going to have to be responsible for end results,” Hagel said.
“We can help, we can train, we can assist, we can advise – and we’re doing that, and we’ll support them – but the inclusiveness of a government that all their people can join and be part of and have confidence in and trust in is going to be essential to their future,” he said.
Hagel suggested that, in the U.S. view, success on the battlefield was only part of the answer. An inclusive government in Baghdad that could rally all Iraqis would be key to the country’s overall success.
In an effort to accomplish that, Abadi, a Shi’ite who took office in September, has worked to build alliances with Sunni tribes. He reached a deal on oil exports with the semi-autonomous Kurdish region after months of dispute.
Airstrikes adding up
During the past four days, Iraqi state television reported, the United States launched 30 raids on Islamic State positions inside Iraq, and a further 14 airstrikes over parts of Syria. U.S. and coalition aircraft have carried out 600 airstrikes over Iraq since early August and another 500 over Syria.
On Monday, the defense secretary said Iraqi forces have gained a “new momentum” in their effort to reclaim territory that the Islamic State group seized in northern and western Iraq earlier this year.
President Barack Obama has approved sending as many as 3,100 troops to Iraq to provide training and advice.
The commander of the U.S.-led coalition, Army Lieutenant General James Terry, said Monday that coalition partners have also promised to send 1,500 military advisers.
Terry said that beyond the Islamic State group’s initial June successes, it has been on the defensive and is trying to hold onto the parts of Iraq it controls. Its militants recently have repeatedly attacked Iraqi government headquarters in the Anbar Province capital, Ramadi. They’ve also tried to recapture the oil refinery in Beiji and the crucial Mosul dam.
VOA’s Edward Yeranian contributed to this report, which also contains some material from Reuters.