Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter touched down in Baghdad Thursday to get an on-the-ground picture of how the fight against the Islamic State there is going.
Senior Defense officials were quick to dispel any notions that this unannounced trip portends a shift in United States strategy or troop levels. There are currently some 3,300 US troops in the country training Iraqi forces.
Instead, this leg of Secretary Carter’s trip to the Mideast – his first as Defense secretary – is focused on an upcoming counteroffensive in western Iraq, which Iraqi security forces launched against Islamic State fighters more than one week ago.
The culmination of this operation will be the fight to retake Ramadi, which fell to Islamic State forces back in May.
This effort will not involve the newly-trained Iraqi forces, US defense officials say – an effort to ensure, perhaps, that the Ramadi offensive will not be a referendum on the quality of US-trained Iraqi forces.
It will also not involve Iraqi Shiite militias, either. Pentagon officials hope that will avoid escalating Shiite-Sunni tensions.
For now, Iraqi security forces are conducting “shaping” operations in advance of the offensive, said Col. Steve Warren, a Pentagon spokesman traveling with Secretary Carter.
“We’re beginning to isolate Ramadi from multiple directions, along multiple avenues of approach into the city,” he told reporters during a briefing.
The goal is to keep the Islamic State from reinforcing its troops there and to prevent any Islamic State forces from escaping Ramadi. (Pentagon officials estimate that there are between 1,000 and 2,000 Islamic State fighters in the city.)
Pentagon officials declined to call the operation a “siege,” perhaps hesitant to hark back to what was widely known as the siege of Fallujah, which is also now under Islamic State control.
“Well, siege is kind of an old-fashioned term,” Colonel Warren told reporters. “What we’re doing is isolating Ramadi. Eventually, when the conditions are right, we will transition into an assault to seize Ramadi.”
For now, no Iraqi forces have entered Ramadi “and they have not tried to,” Warren said. “That is not their mission right now. Currently their mission is to isolate Ramadi.”
He also pushed back against reports that “the Iraqi mission has been slowed or rebuffed” in recent days.
When the battle in Ramadi does begin, it will be a place at the time and choosing of Iraqi forces, Warren said. (US military advisers are helping to plan the operation from a nearby base.)
The current temperatures don’t create favorable conditions for fighters, Warren added. “There’s 110 degree heat that they’re dealing with, which really affects the pace of operations,” he added. “Trust me, I’ve fought in those conditions – and it makes a difference.”
US officials would not specify a timeline for retaking Ramadi. “This is information that the enemy would like.”
“I think you could say in a matter of weeks,” he said. “But weeks can be anywhere from one to, let’s say, eight.”