Iraqi defence chief tells Hagel fighting ISIS is a priority

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Iraq's new defense minister affirmed his commitment to military reform and said going on the offensive against Islamic State fighters is a priority, the Pentagon said on Thursday after U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel spoke to his counterpart by phone.

Rear Admiral John Kirby, the Pentagon press secretary, said Mr Hagel and Iraqi Defence Minister Khaled al-Obeidi spoke for about 20 minutes on Thursday morning in their first phone call since Mr al-Obeidi was approved as the Iraq's defence chief.

"The minister was quite clear, ... on more than one occasion in the call, that he has every intention of going on the offense against ISIL and making sure that the Iraqi security forces are properly resourced, trained and equipped to do that," Mr Kirby told reporters, using an acronym for the Islamic State militants.

"He also made it a special point of noting that he has every intention ... of making sure that the Iraqi Security Forces represent the interests of all Iraqis, that he wants an inclusive army that's representative of the population of Iraq and defends every inch of Iraq," Mr Kirby said.

Mr Al-Obeidi, a Sunni Muslim from the city of Mosul, which is now occupied by Islamic State forces, was approved as defence minister on Saturday by Iraq's parliament.

He serves in the Shi'ite-dominated government of Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, who has promised to work to bridge Iraq's sectarian divisions and unify the country against Islamic State, a Sunni extremist group that has seized much of the country's northwest this year.

Mr Kirby said Mr al-Obeidi and Mr Hagel did not discuss operational details about the training and resources Iraqi security forces would need to go on a major offensive against Islamic State militants.

Instead, they discussed Mr al-Obeidi's priorities as defence minister.

"He was very clear about his desire to defeat ISIL," Kirby said, and "to make sure that the Iraqi army is properly resourced, trained and equipped to continue to defend their country and citizens." Mr Kirby said Mr al-Obeidi also spoke about the need to reform the Iraqi military, which officials say was poorly managed by former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who failed to maintain training, replaced some quality leaders with cronies and increased sectarian divisions.

"He used the word reform in terms of what he knows he needs to do with the Iraqi army," Mr Kirby said.

"Some of that is in the realm of resourcing - man, train and equip - ... and so he knows he has some work to do." Mr Kirby said the two defense chiefs did not discuss US involvement in Iraqi military training going forward and no decision had been made about it.

The United States currently has military advisers assisting Iraqi forces at headquarters levels and is flying air strikes against militant targets. Mr Kirby said Mr al-Obeidi expressed the hope that Hagel could visit Iraq. But added that no decision was made on that.

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