Pentagon chief Carter visits Iraqi Kurdistan

US Defence Secretary Ashton Carter talks to journalists on July 22, 2015.
US Defence Secretary Ashton Carter talks to journalists on July 22, 2015.PHOTO: AFP

ARBIL, Iraq (AFP) - Pentagon chief Ashton Carter met Iraqi Kurdish president Massud Barzani on Friday (July 24) on the second day of a trip to Iraq aimed at reviewing efforts to defeat the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) group.

The United States defence secretary reiterated his commitment to assisting the autonomous northern Iraqi region, which has been at the forefront of efforts to counter the jihadists.

Carter "commended President Barzani on the battlefield successes they've achieved on the ground in coordination with US and coalition air power," a Pentagon statement said.

Several high-ranking Kurdish military officials attended the talks in the Kurdish capital Arbil with Carter, on his first trip to Iraq since taking office earlier this year.

The threat posed to Arbil by an ISIS advance in early August 2014 was one of the reasons cited by US President Barack Obama for announcing US air strikes days later.

An international coalition has since developed and carried out thousands of air strikes, many in support of Kurdish peshmerga forces fighting IS on the ground.

More than 1,200 Kurdish peshmerga fighters have been killed in fighting with ISIS, which last year swept into several areas controlled by the Kurds, who are now trying to take them back.

Many of the 3,500 US advisers and trainers that have been deployed to Iraq in the past year are stationed in Kurdistan.

Carter was due to address some of them before flying out and wrapping up his tour of the Middle East.

He was in Baghdad on Thursday and met several Iraqi officials, including Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi and his counterpart Khaled al-Obeidi.

- No bypassing Baghdad -

Relations are strained between the federal government in Baghdad and the autonomous administration in Kurdistan.

Barzani, whose forces have de facto seized several oil-rich, contested areas on the back of last year's ISIS offensive, has threatened to organise a referendum on independence.

Carter stressed during his meeting with the veteran Kurdish leader that Washington's assistance to Kurdistan as part of the war against IS would not bypass Baghdad.

"The secretary also noted that the United States would continue working by, with, and through the government of Iraq to support Kurdish forces in the fight against ISIL," the Pentagon statement said, using another acronym for ISIS.

Carter's visit came as Iraqi forces were upping the pressure on ISIS in its stronghold of Anbar, a vast Sunni province which stretches from the outskirts of Baghdad to the borders with Syria, Jordan and Saudi Arabia.

Iraqi troops and paramilitary forces have largely encircled Ramadi, the capital of Anbar, and Fallujah, the province's other main city, paving the way for major offensives.

IS is also under increasing pressure in Syria, where Turkish fighter jets bombed ISIS positions for the first time Friday, potentially marking a major shift in the conflict.

After months of negotiations, Turkey also finally gave the green light for the US to use a key air base in its south for its air strikes against ISIS.

NATO member Turkey had been accused of colluding with ISIS by allowing the jihadists to use its territory as a rear base and not fulfilling its role in the coalition.