Ashton Carter arrives in Iraqi capital on unannounced visit

U.S. Secretary of Defense, Ashton Carter. AP file photo

BAGHDAD (AP) — U.S. Ash Carter arrived unannounced in Baghdad on Thursday to assess the government’s progress in healing the country’s sectarian divisions and hear the latest on support for the Iraqi coming attempt to recapture the key city of Ramadi from the Islamic State.

It is Carter’s first visit to Iraq since he took in February.

His first stop on a daylong visit to the Iraqi capital was the Iraqi Counterterrorism Service Academy. He spent about 20 minutes there, watching Iraqi in their trademark all-black uniforms maneuver and fire at silhouette targets at a firing range. Some wore partial or full-face masks.

Carter told the Iraqi counterterrorism commanders: “Your forces have performed so very well, so very bravely. And I know that you have suffered great losses too, but I just wanted to tell you that it is very clear to us in Washington what a capable force this is. So it’s a privilege for us to be your partners.”

Carter is not expected to announce any major change in U.S. strategy or increase in U.S. levels. The approximately 3,360 now in Iraq are largely involved in training Iraqi , advising Iraqi commanders on battle plans, and providing security for U.S. personnel and facilities. The U.S., joined by several coalition partners, also is conducting airstrikes daily to chip away at the Islamic State’s grip on large parts of Iraq.

The visit, however, comes at an important moment for the Iraqi government, which has announced a counteroffensive to retake Ramadi, the capital of Anbar province. The actual assault on the city has not yet begun, but a spokesman, Col. Steve Warren, said it could start within several weeks.

The Ramadi campaign will be a crucial test not only for the Iraqi government led by Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, but also for the U.S. strategy of relying on Iraqi security forces, operating in coordination with U.S.-led coalition airstrikes, to overcome the smaller Islamic State forces. President Barack Obama has opted not to commit U.S. ground combat forces to Iraq, saying the only lasting solution is for Iraq to fight for itself.

American leaders have said they would recommend to Obama that he approve moving U.S. advisers and perhaps special operations forces closer to the front lines if they believed it would make a decisive difference at certain stages of the Iraqi campaign. But Warren said no such recommendation has yet been made. Obama’s critics in Congress complain that he is missing an opportunity to swiftly defeat the Islamic State by not sending U.S. ground combat or at least placing advisers with Iraqi units to make them more effective.

Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who visited Iraq last weekend, supports Obama’s approach. He told a congressional hearing July 7 that he realizes the Islamic State’s threat to the U.S. homeland “could increase” as a result of what he called a patient U.S. approach in Iraq and Syria.

“But I also would suggest to you that we would contribute mightily to ISIL’s message as a movement were we to confront them directly on the ground in Iraq and Syria,” he said, using an acronym for the Islamic State and alluding to the risk of enhancing the group’s ability to recruit fighters.

After Iraqi abandoned Ramadi in early May, handing the Islamic State its biggest battlefield victory of 2015, Carter caused a stir in Iraq when he said its “just showed no will to fight.” That frank assessment exposed a central Iraqi weakness born of the country’s sectarian split.

Carter noted then that the Iraqi forces were not outnumbered in Ramadi, yet they abandoned their weapons and equipment, including dozens of American-supplied tanks, armored fighting vehicles and artillery pieces. They became part of the Islamic State’s arsenal and were then targeted in U.S. airstrikes.

The Islamic State will again be outnumbered when, as expected, the Iraqi makes a renewed assault on Ramadi. Warren, the spokesman who is traveling with Carter, said there are between 1,000 and 2,000 Islamic State fighters in Ramadi. He would not say how many Iraqi are likely to undertake the Ramadi counteroffensive, but he said there are “several thousand” available in the area right now.

The U.S. accelerated and expanded its training effort in Anbar province earlier this summer, but Warren said that none of the Iraqi currently available for the Ramadi counteroffensive are among the nearly 7,000 regular Iraq who have received U.S. training. He said the government has deployed those trainees elsewhere in the country, although he did not rule out that they might be added to the Ramadi force.

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