The top U.S. military officer said on Monday that Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) would be defeated, as he visited Baghdad during an offensive against the radical insurgents which has seen Washington’s military role overshadowed by Iran.
Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey held talks with Defense Minister Khaled al-Obeidi while Iraqi troops and mainly Shiite Muslim militia backed by Iran battled to retake the city of Tikrit from ISIS.
U.S. forces withdrew from Iraq in December 2011, eight years after invading to overthrow Saddam Hussein. Since ISIS fighters took over parts of the country in June, Washington has been training and equipping the army to fight back.
It has also led an international air coalition which has been striking ISIS positions in Iraq and Syria.
But it says Baghdad did not request U.S. help in the battle to retake Saddam’s home city of Tikrit, which is being waged by more than 20,000 fighters, mostly militias known as Hashid Shaabi (Popular Mobilization) units, as well as army troops.
Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani, commander of the Revolutionary Guards elite Quds brigade, has been seen directing operations on the eastern flank, where the Iran-backed Badr Organization has been steadily fighting toward Tikrit.
Dempsey sought to emphasize the wider international support behind Baghdad’s counter-offensive.
“Daesh will be defeated and it will be defeated because the coalition that has organized together to face this common threat,” he told a news conference, standing alongside Obeidi. Daesh is the Arabic acronym for ISIS.
Tehran and Washington have been major adversaries since Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution, although there has been a recent thaw linked to negotiations between big powers and Iran on curbing its nuclear work in exchange for sanctions relief.
Obeidi defended Baghdad’s close reliance on its neighbor, which he said was one of many allies. He said Iran provided most of its support to the militias, although he described the label as misleading and called them instead as “popular forces.”
“We are in a state of war, and the condition of the military in the previous period is no secret to anyone, especially in terms of weapons and military equipment for the Iraqi army,” Obeidi said. Iraqi army brigades north of Baghdad collapsed in a matter of days in front of ISIS’ June offensive.
“When we need something that Iran has, we make use of it. And the same is the case for the U.S. … Iran mainly helps the Hashid Shaabi, it supports the popular forces in Iraq.”
While not involved in the Tikrit offensive, the United States has been training Iraqi troops for a campaign further north to retake Mosul, the largest city under Islamic State control. So far 5,000 troops have completed the training.
Last month a U.S. official said the Mosul offensive may be launched in April or May - a forecast Washington later dismissed as inaccurate - but the announcement was met by frosty anger in Baghdad. Obeidi said the timing of any military action was an entirely Iraqi decision.
Iraq has also criticized the U.S.-led coalition for failing to use air power to protect its cultural heritage from Islamic State militants, who have attacked artifacts in Mosul museum and bulldozed parts of the ancient cities of Nimrud and Hatra.
Dempsey said the military priority was focused on populated areas and protecting residents from the militants. “So it’s a little difficult to prioritize the areas of antiquities, but there are times when that may be possible. It would be a matter of prioritization with our Iraqi partners,” he said.