US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel arrived in Baghdad today to consult with Iraqi government officials and confer with US commanders about the campaign to defeat Islamic State fighters.
In remarks to a group of US and Australian soldiers, Hagel said the US wants to help Iraq regain the territory it lost to Islamic State militants earlier this year, but said the only lasting solution must come from the Iraqis themselves.
“In the end, that’s where this all goes,” he said in remarks on an outdoor stage shielded by portable concrete walls at Baghdad International Airport.
“Just as in Afghanistan, it is their country,” Hagel said.
“They have to lead. They are the ones that are going to have to be responsible for end results.”
Hagel said the Baghdad government must bring the country together after disastrous years of sectarian division that undermined much of what the US did to train Iraqi security forces.
“The inclusiveness of a government that all their people can join and be part of and have confidence in and trust in is going to be essential to their future,” he said.
On what is expected to be his last overseas trip as Pentagon chief, Hagel landed at the airport under tight security. He is the first US defense secretary to visit Iraq since Leon Panetta was here in December 2011 to mark the end of the US military mission.
Hagel said yesterday during a visit to Kuwait that he believes Iraq’s security forces have gained a new momentum, thanks in part to sustained US airstrikes against Islamic State militants.
The US is committed to helping Iraq roll back the territorial gains the militants made earlier this year, but President Barack Obama has ruled out sending American ground combat forces. He maintains that any lasting solution in Iraq can only be carried out by a newly unified Iraqi government.
At the peak of the war in Iraq the US had about 170,000 troops in the country. When it pulled out, in December 2011, US officials said they believed Iraq was on track to long-term stability. There are about 1,650 US troops in Iraq now.
Hagel was scheduled to meet in Baghdad with Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi and other government officiais.
During his stop in Kuwait, Hagel said the Islamic State group remains a formidable threat, not only to Iraq but also to neighboring Iran and other countries in the region. He repeated the US government’s policy of not coordinating military action in Iraq with Iran, but he also suggested that Iran has reason to be concerned about the long-term ambitions of the Islamic State.