BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Iraq has for the first time deployed soldiers trained by the U.S.-led coalition in their campaign to retake the city of Ramadi from Islamic State militants, the U.S. military said on Thursday.
The disclosure came during an unannounced visit by U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter to Baghdad, where he met Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi and underscored the need for capable Iraqi ground forces to battle back Islamic State.
“We’re making some progress. We need to make more,” Carter told U.S. troops gathered at Baghdad airport.
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 U.S.-backed army he entrusted with its defense.
The fall of Ramadi was the Iraqi army’s worst defeat since Islamic State militants swept through north Iraq last summer 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 the Sunni heartland of Anbar.
Pentagon spokesman Colonel Steve Warren told reporters traveling with Carter that the roughly 3,000 coalition-trained soldiers joined the Ramadi operation in recent days.
Some 500 Sunni tribesmen were also participating, Warren said. He declined to say how many Iraqi forces in total were involved in the Ramadi campaign, citing operational security.
U.S. President Barack Obama responded to the fall of Ramadi last month by ordering 450 more U.S. 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 the new U.S. deployment to Taqaddum was to encourage Sunni tribes to join the battle against Islamic State, complementing efforts at the Ain al-Asad air base, also in Anbar.
Carter sought to underscore that objective in Baghdad, holding talks with Sunni leaders including the governor of Anbar province.
The Iraqi forces, backed by U.S.-led coalition air strikes, were in the process of encircling Ramadi to choke off Islamic State supplies and trap their fighters ahead of a push to seize the city, Warren said.
Citing Iraqi battlefield reporting, Warren said Iraqi forces had advanced to the area around the University of Anbar in Ramadi, saying they were moving “methodically, deliberately and slowly”.
The United States estimates there are about 1,000 to 2,000 Islamic State fighters in Ramadi, Warren said.
Shi’ite militia commanders, who have led much of the fightback in Iraq against Islamic State over the last 12 months, have said their initial focus is not on Ramadi but the nearby city of Falluja, under insurgent control for more than a year and a half.
Warren said the government in Baghdad had indicated the militia would not be involved in Ramadi.
“The government of Iraq has indicated that they have no intention of using the Shi’ite militia forces as part of the liberation of Ramadi,” Warren said.
Abadi, at the end of a 45-minute meeting with Carter, sought to underscore the role of his forces battling Islamic State.
“It is Iraq forces that are fighting on the ground and that are liberating remaining territory,” he said.
Reporting by Phil Stewart; Editing by William Maclean and Tom Heneghan