US Defense Secretary Ash Carter made a surprise visit to Baghdad on Thursday as violence continued across the country.
Carter met with Iraqi officials, including Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi and Defense Minister Khaled al-Obaidi, to discuss the fight against Islamic State (IS) militants. He also spent time with some of the 3,500 US troops stationed there and the local counter-terrorism forces they had trained, according to posts on his official Facebook page.
"I just landed in Iraq to meet with troops and get an on the ground assessment of our counter-ISIL campaign," he said, later telling troops, "We can beat ISIL — we know that — but lasting defeat means that Iraqis must own this fight."
Washington heads an international coalition carrying out an ongoing series of airstrikes against IS in Iraq and Syria, but American troops in Iraq operate only in training and advisory roles.
The unannounced visit is Carter's first to the country since he took office in February this year and comes as Iraqi forces continue with forays into IS-held Anbar province ahead of a planned offensive to retake its capital of Ramadi.
IS overran much of Anbar, including Fallujah, in early 2014 and went on to seize Ramadi in May of this year, inflicting an embarrassing defeat on Iraqi forces, which had been slowly regaining ground from the extremists.
There have since been repeated government attempts to retake the province, including an assault announced after the fall of Ramadi, but little progress appears to have been made. Recent operations have concentrated on cutting off supply routes to both the provincial capital and to Fallujah.
On July 13, officials announced the latest offensive, which includes troops and police as well as Shia militias and allied Sunni tribes. Abadi said it would "take revenge on IS criminals on the battlefield."
Meanwhile, IS appears to have stepped up its campaign of attacks on Shia areas of the country. Also on Thursday, the group said it carried out a suicide car bombing the previous day that killed at least 20 in the predominantly Shia neighborhood of al-Bayaa, in Baghdad's southwest, Reuters reported.
A separate blast in al-Shaab, another majority Shia area of the capital, left eight dead and 22 injured, police and medical officials told the Associated Press.
An IS bombing targetting a market in Diyala province last week killed 115 people, one of the worst attacks of its kind in years.
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