Iraq moving to retake town from ISIS: US commander

CAMP ARIFJAN, Kuwait (Reuters, AFP) - Iraqi forces appear set to drive Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) militants out of the western town of al-Baghdadi, securing an area near a key air base where US Marines are training local forces, a top US commander said on Monday.

Lieutenant General James Terry, the senior US commander of US-led coalition efforts in Iraq and Syria, played down the militants' seizure of large parts of the town earlier this month, saying that the area had long been contested.

Speaking to reporters before an unusual war strategy meeting with top US military and diplomatic leaders in Kuwait, Terry portrayed ISIS as being on the back foot after they swept through northern Iraq last summer, while the Iraqi army is improving.

“The capabilities that we’re seeing in the Iraqi security forces are growing,” Terry told reporters in Kuwait. "My assessment is (ISIS) is halted, on the defensive, and really forced-exposed themselves in order to achieve gains," he added.

The Iraqi army's 7th Division, including one of its commando units, were joining with tribal forces to retake al-Baghdadi, which is about 85 km northwest of Ramadi in Anbar province, Terry said.

"Baghdadi itself isn't that big," said Terry, the commander of Operation Inherent Resolve. "I'm pretty confident that the Iraqis will retake this. I think they've got the right forces out there to do it."

Terry estimated that more than 800 Iraqi forces were participating and said the US-led coalition was advising from nearby Ain al-Asad air base and had carried out air strikes in support of the Iraqis, although the timing of those was unclear.

Sabah Karhut, head of Anbar Provincial Council, said Iraqi security forces had recaptured al-Baghdadi police station and had reached the town centre. He said there was heavy fighting on Monday and that 20 ISIS fighters were killed.

New US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter hosted Terry and other top US commanders and diplomats at Camp Arifjan in Kuwait, seeking to make his own assessment of a war strategy that he inherited when he was sworn into office six days ago.

"This is 'Team America' in this region and I wanted to get us together," Carter told the group of more than two dozen US officials, including Obama's envoy to the coalition, retired General John Allen.

Carter stressed that ISIS was a threat that extended beyond Iraq and Syria, and required both political and military efforts to resolve.

There has been a fierce debate in the United States about US strategy, which Obama's Republican critics say is far too limited militarily to succeed.

There is also increasing concern about Islamic State's spread, with Libya emerging as a battleground for militants loyal to the group.