Iraq’s leaders told Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel on Tuesday that local security forces want an increase in airstrikes and American-made weaponry in their fight to defeat Islamic State militants.
The appeal by Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Abadi conveys the mounting pressure from Baghdad to ramp up efforts against the Sunni Muslim extremists as the U.S. campaign enters its fifth month.
“We are very thankful for the support that's been given to us,” Abadi said during their meeting. “Our forces are very much advancing on the ground. But they need more air power and more … heavy weaponry. We need that.”
Abadi said that Islamic State had acquired extensive weaponry and continued to cross between Iraq and Syria.
Hagel later said he “appreciated his directness,” but would not say whether the U.S. would provide any additional assistance. The U.S. has carried out about 600 airstrikes since operations began Aug. 8.
Abadi made the plea at a Saddam Hussein-era palace that serves as his offices.
Hagel touched down Tuesday morning at Baghdad International Airport in a C-17 military cargo plane, in his first visit to Iraq since the U.S. began launching military operations against Islamic State.
Although Hagel’s visit had been planned for weeks, the Pentagon has worked to keep it quiet. He was met on the wind-swept runway by Army Lt. Gen. James L. Terry, the commander in charge of U.S. operations against Islamic State.
President Obama has authorized deploying as many as 3,100 U.S. troops to the country, most of whom have yet to arrive. The Pentagon plans to establish two advise-and-assist operations centers outside Baghdad and Irbil, and to use several sites to accommodate the training of 12 Iraqi brigades: nine in the Iraqi army and three made up of Kurdish fighters, known as peshmerga.
A brigade in Iraq can range from fewer than 1,000 soldiers to more than 3,000.
The administration said Americans would be barred from accompanying Iraqi troops on combat operations, in keeping with Obama’s vow to not send ground troops back to Iraq.
“Our role has to be a support role,” Hagel said, addressing troops at the airport. “It is their country. They have to lead.”
Hagel's visit caps a five-day trip that took him to key U.S. military installations in Afghanistan, Kuwait and Iraq to meet with commanders, heads of state and troops deployed in the region.
Hagel also visited the Iraqi presidential palace, a giant sand-colored structure next to the Tigris River in Baghdad, where he held talks with President Fouad Massoum and his advisors in a formal reception room.
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