ERBIL, Iraq (Reuters) - U.S. Defence Secretary Ash Carter called Iraq’s Kurdish fighters a model for the kind of force needed to defeat Islamic State as he made an unannounced visit on Friday to the capital of Iraq’s Kurdistan region.
While Iraq’s army has struggled, the Kurdish region’s security forces, or peshmerga, have rolled back Islamic State militants in northern Iraq and expanded the formal boundary of their semi-autonomous region.
“Here the peshmerga are pretty far along in their capabilities, so they can win on the ground here with our help,” Carter said in Erbil, noting coalition support, including training, arms, intelligence and air strikes.
Carter met the Kurdistan region’s President Massoud Barzani, a veteran guerrilla leader who fought Saddam Hussein for decades. He also spoke with U.S. and coalition troops advising and training the peshmerga.
Carter’s visit to Erbil came a day after the Pentagon chief travelled to Baghdad to meet Iraqi leaders as they advance plans to recapture the city of Ramadi which fell to Islamic State in May.
The loss of Ramadi was the Iraqi army’s worst defeat since the radical Sunni militants swept through northern Iraq last summer. It came despite a daily campaign of U.S.-led coalition air strikes meant to bolster Iraqi forces on the ground.
Carter noted that some parts of Iraq’s security forces were just as capable as the peshmerga, as well as some Kurdish forces in Syria.
“We are trying to build up a force throughout the territory of Iraq, and then some day ... in Syria,” Carter told coalition troops in Erbil. Here (in) Kurdistan ... the Peshmerga is the model of what we’re trying to achieve.”
Kurdish help may be key to Iraq’s hopes of winning upcoming battles in Iraq. The U.S. military has estimated that eventually Iraq will need three brigades from the Kurdish region, as well as six from the Iraqi army, to recapture Mosul from Islamic State.
Editing by Dominic Evans