US Defense Secretary Ash Carter made a surprise visit to Baghdad, the capital of Iraq, for talks with Iraqi leaders and attend a meeting with US military commanders who are fighting ISIS.
ISIS continues to grow in power, having captured the city of Iraqi Ramadi in May after taking control of large swathes of territory in the country last year.
This is Carter’s first visit to Iraq since he took over at the Pentagon in February. He is expected to focus on the progress of political conciliation between the Shiite fighters, lnown as the Popular Mobilizations Forces, who control the central government, the Sunni minority and the Kurds who control the regional government in the country’s north.
Carter also is expected to discuss matters related to US training and equipping of Iraqi security forces, who are gearing up for a counteroffensive in Ramadi, the capital of Sunni-dominated Anbar Province.
US president Barack Obama descried the loss of Ramadi as a “strategic setback.”
More than 3,360 US troops are currently stationed in Iraq.
After speaking with US commanders and Iraqi officials, Carter said he aimed to form his "own on-the-ground assessment of the campaign."
Carter had previously criticised Iraqi forces after the loss of Ramadi, citing a lack of will to fight. Iraqi forces had reportedly abandoned US imported equipment in the battle field against ISIS, causing the militant group to claim the abandoned humvees, and later execute several operations with it across Iraq.
Carter’s visit to Iraq comes in a critical time as the Iraqi army prepares to retake Ramadi. The Iraqi government announced the counter offensive to reclaim Ramadi, but assault has not yet begun. The battle for Ramadi will be crucial in testifying the ability of the Iraqi army led by Haider al Abadi as well as the US-led coalition air strikes to defeat ISIS.
Republican Senator John McCain previously called for further military intervention in Iraq, citing the dire need for ground troops, because the air strikes are proving ineffective. In his own opinion, over 75 percent of targets are reportedly missed by the coalition air strikes.
Carter in Saudi Arabia and Jordan
Carter came to Iraq passing through Amman, Jordan, after departing from Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, on July 22.
In Jordan, Carter met top Jordanian military commanders and members of the Jordanian Armed Forces as he arrived at the ‘Jordan Armed Forces Headquarters in Amman.
Carter was in Saudi Arabia’s Riyadh on Wednesday after his visit to Israel ended.
This is Carter’s second stop of his Middle East tour aimed at keeping US allies reassured over the effectiveness of the finally completed nuclear deal with Iran and six world powers.
Carter flew to Jordan from Tel Aviv to hold talks with Saudi King Salman in Jeddah, where the Saudi King is staying during the torrid summer heat, mid-afternoon of the same day he will prepare for his next stop in Amman, Jordan.
King Salman's son Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who is also the defense minister, met with Carter for an hour.
Carter and his Saudi counterparts discussed training special forces, cyber security, anti-missile defense and freedom of navigation in the strategic Red Sea and Gulf waterways, an American defence official said.
The Sunni-dominated Saudi Arabia is a traditional rival of the Shiite-dominated Iran. The kingdom is equally worried Tehran could still be able to develop an atomic bomb despite the limitations imposed by the deal.
Riyadh and its Gulf neighbours are also constantly denouncing Tehran’s "interference" in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen.
Saudi Arabia has been the leader of a military campaign that battles Iranian Backed Houthis in Yemen since last March, in efforts to reinstate President Abd Rabbuh Mansour Hadi, who is in self-imposed exile in Riyadh.
During Carter’s visit to Israel on Monday, he was warmly welcomed by his Israeli counterpart. The Pentagon chief met at Israel’s defense headquarters with Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon and followed by a meeting on Tuesday with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has strongly criticised the Iran deal.
Yaalon thanked Carter for his country’s contributions to Israeli security and military excellence and said Israel appreciates its friendship with the US.
Netanyahu described the nuclear agreement with Iran as a "historic mistake" which would open the way for the country to produce nuclear weapons.
Carter said that the option of military action to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons still exists, despite the nuclear agreement sealed with the country last week. Carter’s comments were likely made in an effort to calm Israel, the main US ally in the Middle East.
While Israel and the gulf countries addressed the dangers they see imposed by Iranian influence, Carter has other concerns to be discussed on his agenda, including the war against ISIS, in addition to consistently committing unspeakable atrocities in many countries including Egypt, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia.
"We will continue to work with Israel and other partners in this region to counter the danger from Iran, even as we do the same with respect to ISIL [ISIS]," Carter said, when he spoke on Tuesday in Jordan.
Carter addressed military personnel who are part of the US-led coalition battling the armed insurgency since last year. Saudi Arabia and Jordan both belong to that coalition.