The Pentagon chief has made an unannounced visit to Baghdad to get a first-hand assessment of the campaign against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) as Iraq tries to retake the fallen capital of the Sunni-dominated Anbar province.
Ash Carter, on his first visit as US defence secretary since taking up his position in February, said on Thursday that he would meet US commanders as well as Iraqi political leaders, including Haider al-Abadi, Iraq’s prime minister.
His visit coincides with attempts by Iraqi forces to lay the groundwork for an eventual push to try to recapture Ramadi, isolating parts of the city with help from US-led air strikes before a full offensive.
On the same day of Carter’s visit, a series of suicide car bombings rocked north and east of Fallujah in Anbar province, targeting Iraqi security forces and the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF), military sources told Al Jazeera.
At least 113 Iraqi troops and PMF members were killed in the attacks, while another 106 were injured.
Before his arrival, Carter said he sought to form “my own on-the-ground assessment of the campaign”.
“I will be doing my own conferring with our military commanders,” he said.
Al Jazeera’s Imran Khan, reporting from Baghdad, said Carter’s visit was unannounced for security reasons.
“As he arrives, the Iraqi’s are gearing up and moving forward in the phase one of the operation in Anbar against ISIL,” he said.
“He will not be meeting with one of the groups and the main fighting force, the PMF, but he certainly will be discussing any role they might have to play in the Anbar offensive”.
Our correspondent said the Iraqis are likely to ask Carter questions related to the arms that they have been promised.
“They want a speed-up of the arms that they have been promised,” he said.
“They have already been delivered four F16 fighter jets, from a total of 36. They will be wanting to know when the rest of the fighter jets are arriving.”
The loss of Ramadi was the Iraqi army’s worst defeat since ISIL swept through north Iraq last summer.
The onslaught further exposed the shortcomings of Iraq’s mainly Shia forces.
It also raised questions about the ability of the Shia-led government in Baghdad to overcome the sectarian divide that has helped drive ISIL’s expansion in Anbar.
US President Barack Obama responded last month by ordering 450 more US troops to set up at Taqaddum base, which is closer to the fighting in Anbar and only about 25km from Ramadi, the provincial capital.
One of the goals of the US deployment to Taqaddum is to encourage Sunni tribes to join the battle against ISIL, complementing efforts at the Ain al-Asad air base, also in Anbar.
A Pentagon spokesman estimated that as many as 1,800 Sunni recruits had been trained at Taqaddum since the base was set up.
The Sunni forces will play a key role in helping secure terrain but are not expected to lead any advance into Ramadi, something that could happen within the next two months, depending on Iraq’s own assessments, the spokesman said.
Carter said he would also meet Sunni leaders during his trip, noting Sunni participation in the campaign would be critical to its success.
A senior US defence official said Iraq had shown some “positive momentum” in its engagement with Sunnis in the past months.
Carter aimed to build on that, the official said.
ISIL seized Ramadi two months ago, extending its control over the Euphrates valley west of Baghdad, and dealing a major setback to Abadi, the Iraqi leader, and the US-backed army he entrusted with its defence.