BAGHDAD (AFP) – US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel visited Iraq Tuesday to review efforts against the Islamic State group but insisted it was up to the Iraqis themselves to win the war against the militants.
Hagel, who is due to step down from office shortly, was to be briefed by US military commanders and hold talks with his Iraqi counterpart as well as Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi during the unannounced visit.
Washington has forged an alliance of Western and Arab countries that has launched air strikes against IS after the extremist group seized swathes of territory in Iraq and Syria and declared an Islamic “caliphate”.
The United States will be doubling the number of its troops in Iraq helping government forces to 3,100, and on Monday the American commander of the war effort said allies were also ready to send roughly 1,500 security personnel.
But, speaking to a group of US and Australian troops soon after he landed, Hagel said the outcome of the campaign would ultimately depend on the Baghdad government.
“It’s their country, they have to lead, they’re the ones who are going to have to be responsible for end results,” he said.
“We can help, we can train, we can assist, we can advise – we’re doing that.”
The Iraqi leadership will need to build an inclusive government that wins the trust of all the country’s religious and ethnic communities, he said.
Support for IS has been in part fuelled by complaints from Iraq’s Sunni minority of being excluded from power by the country’s Shiite majority.
US and allied warplanes have launched more than 1,200 air strikes against militants in Iraq and Syria since August 8.
Washington also has about 1,500 troops in Iraq providing security for the American embassy and advising the Baghdad government’s army and Kurdish forces.
Last month President Barack Obama approved the deployment of another 1,500 troops to bolster the training and advising effort across the country.
Hagel is on his first trip to Iraq since taking over as Pentagon chief in February 2013.
It is also set to be his last visit to the country before he stands down.
Hagel announced his resignation last month, rejecting accounts that he was forced out and saying it was a mutual agreement with Obama.
He arrived in Iraq from Kuwait, where US Lieutenant General James Terry on Monday told reporters that members of the coalition meeting last week in the region made initial pledges that would bring “close” to 1,500 additional forces to Iraq to train and assist the country’s army.
Terry did not indicate which countries from the coalition would provide the security personnel or how many of them would be in uniform or otherwise.
He said “the large percentage” of the personnel to be deployed would be training Iraqi troops.
Terry, who oversees the war against IS, said Iraqi security forces were steadily improving but remained months away from staging large-scale offensives that could roll back the militants.
“While they still have a long way to go I think they’re becoming more capable every day,” he said.