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US-trained Iraqi forces mount attack against Islamic State in Ramadi

BAGHDAD: US-trained Iraqi forces are preparing to launch an assault on the Islamic State in the Iraqi city of Ramadi, defense officials said on Thursday, in a key test of the Obama administration’s strategy for defeating the militant group.

About 3,000 Iraqi soldiers have taken positions around Ramadi in the past few days, the first time that troops trained by American advisers over the past year have been deployed for an offensive against the Islamist State.

Col Steve Warren, a Pentagon spokesman, said the deployment of the two Iraqi brigades around Ramadi, the capital of Anbar province, was significant because they were well trained and better equipped than many other Iraqi army units. He said those brigades advanced about four miles on Wednesday. “We’ve already seen progress,” he told reporters in Baghdad.

News of the troop debut came as Defense Secretary Ashton B Carter, who has openly questioned Iraqi forces’ will to fight, made his first trip to Baghdad since assuming his post in February.

Carter’s brief, previously unannounced visit aimed to assess how the Baghdad government is doing in improving the state security forces and recruiting Iraq’s minority Sunnis, whose support US officials view as key to defeating the Islamic State, also known as ISIS, ISIL and Daesh.

In coming months, senior American officials will have to decide whether they will send additional US troops to Iraq or deploy Americans closer to the front lines to ensure Iraqi forces can accelerate their fitful progress against the militants.

“To defeat Daesh, we need capable ground forces that we can enable and support, and we will. And getting those forces, in turn, requires inclusive governance,” Carter said at the close of a meeting with Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi in Baghdad’s Green Zone.

Carter also held talks with other officials from Iraq’s Shiite-led government, including Defense Minister Khaled al-Obeidi, and leaders from the Sunni minority.

US military officials say more than 5,000 Iraqi soldiers, federal police officers and counterterrorism troops are working to isolate Ramadi, whose fall to the Islamic State in May dealt a major blow to the US-backed campaign against the group.

Warren said this week that those forces aimed to “place a noose around the city and isolate it” from militants elsewhere. He said the offensive to retake Ramadi could begin as soon as “several weeks” from now. The Islamic State is estimated to have 1,000 to 2,000 fighters in the city.

In a visit to the Iraqi Counterterrorism Service Academy, Carter was briefed on U.S. efforts to train and advise Iraqi special forces. He watched a team of elite soldiers — in all-black uniforms and some with black masks — conduct shooting drills.

The unit is regarded as the most skilled of Iraq’s security forces, and the government has relied on it heavily in operations against the Islamic State over the past 18 months.

The academy’s commander, Maj. Gen. Falah al-Mohamedawi, thanked Carter for U.S. support in developing Iraqi counterterrorism capabilities.

“God willing, together we will defeat Daesh,” Mohamedawi told Carter.

“Yes, we will,” the US defense chief replied.