US Defense Secretary Ash Carter has extended his surprise trip to Iraq by visiting Kurdish leaders in Irbil. From northern Iraq, Kurdish forces have played a key role in containing "Islamic State" jihadists.
Carter flew Friday from Jordan to Irbil for unannounced talks with Masoud Barzani (pictured above), the president of Iraq's semi-autonomous Kurdistan region.
On Thursday, the US defense chief had visited Baghdad for talks with Iraq's government, notably Iraqi Defense Minister Khaled al-Obeidi, over plans to evict "Islamic State" ("IS") militants holding Ramadi, west of Baghdad.
Carter's tour is his first to Iraq since he took office in February.
In Irbil, his talks were expected to focus on the US training of Kurdish forces, known as the peshmerga, and the US provision of arms via Iraq's central government led by Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi.
IS militants seized swathes of Syria and northern Iraq last year. Peshmerga are likely to play roles in an eventual campaign by Iraq's Shiite-led government to retake the northern Iraqi city of Mosul.
Carter calls for 'inclusive' Iraqi governance
In Baghdad late Thursday, Carter's Pentagon spokesman, Colonel Steve Warren, said the Iraqi government had deployed 3,000 troops close to Ramadi, the capital of Anbar province.
Those deployed included 500 Sunni tribesmen, whose training by Iraqis was overseen by US troops, Warren said.
Their aim was to encircle Ramadi, choke off supplies to IS fighters - estimated to number between 1,000 and 2,000 - ahead of a push to retake the city.
Meeting al-Abadi, Carter reportedly urged Iraq's government to ensure that it had "capable ground forces" and practiced "inclusive governance."
Ramadi's fall to IS two months ago was the Iraqi army's worst defeat since last year, and raised questions about Baghdad's inclusion of Sunnis. Carter subsequently criticized Iraqi forces for lacking sufficient will.
Iraq's previous government headed by former premier Nuri al-Maliki was resented by Anbar's dominant Sunni population for allegedly promoting Shiite interests.
Targeting Falluja, say Shiite militias
Commanders of Iraqi Shiite militias have said their next focus will be not on Ramadi but Falluja, an adjacent city under insurgent control for more than a year.
"The government of Iraq has indicated that they have no intention of using the Shiite militia forces as part of the liberation of Ramadi," Warren said Thursday.
Last month, US President Barack Obama ordered 450 more US troops to set up at Taqaddum base, which lies about 15 miles (25 kilometers) from Ramadi.
Iraq acquiring F-16s to fight IS
Earlier this month, Iraq took delivery of four advanced F-16 fighter jets from the US, with the intention of buying a total of 36 F-16s to assist in campaigns against "Islamic State."
Last September, the US launched a multinational air campaign, including Arabic states, against IS positions inside Syria and Iraq.
The monitoring group, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said the coalition's airstrikes had so far killed at least 3,216 people, mostly hardline jihadists.
Among the dead were 173 civilians, including 53 children, it said.
Islamic State, which split from al-Qaeda in 2013, has recruited numerous foreign jihadists.
ipj/kms (Reuters, AP, dpa)