BAGHDAD— The nation’s top military officer told American troops on a surprise visit to Baghdad on Saturday that the momentum in the battle against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria was “starting to turn,” but Army Gen. Martin Dempsey predicts a drawn-out campaign lasting several years.
The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff was visiting Iraq for the first time since President Obama ordered troops back into the country they left in 2011.
Obama last week authorized roughly doubling the number of American advisers while the U.S.-led coalition conducts airstrikes to “degrade and destroy” ISIS.
Dempsey told a group of Marines at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad that the U.S. military had helped Iraqi and Kurdish forces “pull Iraq back from the precipice.”
“And now, I think it’s starting to turn. So well done,” Dempsey said.
Dempsey had reason to sound upbeat.
ISIS began withdrawing from the area around the Baiji refinery in northern Iraq, Iraqi officials told The Washington Post. The retreat would mark the end of the group’s monthlong siege at a strategic oil installation, and a significant victory for pro-government forces.
But it remains unclear whether Iraqi forces had passed through the gates of the refinery — Iraq’s largest. Iraqi security officials gave conflicting reports on whether police and army troops had entered the facility.
Dempsey said it had been crucial to show ISIS was not an unstoppable, 10-foot-tall force and instead “a bunch of midgets running around with a really radical ideology.”
He was hardly triumphal, however. He visited a Joint Operations Center and watched a live video feed showing ISIS’ black flag waving.
Thirty-six people were kidnapped by ISIS in western Iraq on Saturday, security sources said, members of the same tribe massacred in the hundreds by the group recently.
Mortar attacks on oil and gas facilities wounded two people near the northern city of Kirkuk, oil officials said.
ISIS continues to make gains in western Iraq’s Anbar province, the heartland of the Sunni insurgency against U.S. forces during the Iraq war.
But the government’s progress in Baiji is a serious blow to the jihadists in the north.
Their blockade of the refinery had taken much of the country’s oil production off line, leading to reduced supplies for domestic consumption.
Dempsey repeatedly made the point that military force could not root out ISIS unless Iraq’s government manages to work across the Sunni-Shiite divide.
Building trust would take time. So would the U.S. mission, he said.
“How long? Several years,” he said.
Dempsey, who also met top Iraqi officials, told Reuters that he wanted to find out whether the Iraqis believe they could win recruits for a program the United States hopes to get under way next year to retrain Iraqi units.
“I want to get a sense from them on whether they believe our timeline is feasible,” Dempsey said.
About 1,400 U.S. troops are now in Iraq. Obama’s new authorization allows for deployment of up to 3,100.
After meeting senior Iraqi officials in Baghdad, including Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, Dempsey traveled to Irbil, capital of the Kurdistan semi-autonomous region in the north. American troops also will train Kurdish forces.