ERBIL, Iraq (Reuters) - U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter arrived on an unannounced visit on Friday to Erbil, capital of Iraq’s Kurdistan region whose forces have emerged as one of America’s strongest partners in the fight against Islamic State.
Carter was expected to meet the Kurdistan region’s President Massoud Barzani as well as U.S. forces advising and training the Kurdish region’s security forces, known as peshmerga.
While lamenting the shortcomings of Iraq’s army, which collapsed in the face of Islamic State’s advance last year, Pentagon officials have solidly praised the Kurds.
The peshmerga have rolled back Islamic State militants in northern Iraq and expanded the formal boundary of their autonomous region, earning international military assistance and raising the Kurds’ profile abroad.
Speaking to reporters ahead of his trip, Carter branded Kurdish forces “a powerful and successful ground force”. He said he was looking forward to seeing Barzani, a veteran guerrilla leader who fought Saddam Hussein for decades.
“The Kurds are an example of what we’re looking for, which is an effective ground force that’ll stick up for itself, hold together, take and hold territory,” Carter said in testimony to the U.S. Congress earlier this month.
Friday’s talks are likely to include regular Kurdish requests for arms and equipment. The Pentagon has said it is examining Kurdish requests, including for mine-resistant vehicles.
Carter’s visit to Erbil came a day after the Pentagon chief traveled to Baghdad to meet Iraqi leaders as they advance plans to recapture the city of Ramadi which fell to Islamic State in May.
The loss of Ramadi was the Iraqi army’s worst defeat since the radical Sunni militants swept through northern Iraq last summer. It came despite a daily campaign of U.S.-led coalition air strikes meant to bolster Iraqi forces on the ground.
Carter told U.S. troops gathered in Jordan during this week’s trip to the region that the key to success was the “magic combination” of capable ground force and coalition air power.
Kurdish help may be key to Iraq’s hopes of winning upcoming battles in Iraq. The U.S. military has estimated that, eventually, Iraq will need three brigades from the Kurdish region, as well as six from the Iraqi army, to recapture Mosul from Islamic State.
Editing by Dominic Evans