BAGHDAD — Defense Secretary Ash Carter traveled to Iraq's capital Wednesday with an offer to deploy more American troops and new attack helicopters to help the Iraqi army defeat the Islamic State group.
But for now, at least, the Iraqis are passing up that offer.
Specifically, Carter said the U.S. is willing to provide Iraqi army units with close-air support via Apache attack helicopters and also to expand the advise-and-assist mission to include combat advisers at the brigade level. The current mission limits such American advisers to division and headquarters levels.
But no agreement emerged from the 40-minute meeting between Carter and Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi in Baghdad's Green Zone.
"The prime minister did not make any specific requests," Carter told reporters after the meeting. "However, we did discuss the possibility that circumstances in the future might cause our commanders to advise, and his commanders to advise, and him therefore to approve us doing more things like using helicopters, like using additional personnel."
The offer, which Carter first floated publicly in testimony to Congress on Dec. 9, likely would mean deploying hundreds of additional U.S. troops to Iraq. It reflects Washington's growing interest in ramping up the fight against the Islamic State group in the wake of the Paris terrorist attacks that killed 149 people in November and the shootings that killed 14 Americans in San Bernadino, California, in early December.
The Iraqi prime minister's rejection of the offer reveals the growing pressure he faces from Iran and Shiite factions inside Iraq to limit the role and influence of American forces in his country.
"This is a very complex environment that we are operating in, and we have to be attentive to some of the political realities that surround us every single day," said Lt. Gen. Sean MacFarland, commander of Operation Inherent Resolve, as the mission in Iraq and Syria is known.
"There are a number of complex relationships that the government of Iraq has to attend to. And we are here in Iraq at the behest of that government, so sometimes we have to adjust the things that we would do," MacFarland told reporters in Baghdad Wednesday.
Ultimately, the American military must defer to Baghdad, he said. "It's kind of hard to inflict support on somebody."
The conversation between Carter and al-Abadi highlights how the political dynamics in Washington and Baghdad have reversed course over time.
For months, the primary constraint on the U.S. military mission in Iraq was the White House's reluctance to send U.S. troops into harm's way or become entangled in the complex sectarian politics inside Iraq.
Now, the political forces limiting the U.S. mission appear to be coming from Baghdad as Iran and hardline Shiites in Iraq have grown more powerful over time and the Iraqi prime minister risks losing his job if he appears to be too closely aligned with the U.S.
"He's in a tough spot," said Army Col. Steve Warren, a Defense Department spokesman traveling with Carter in Baghdad.
"There are many forces here in Iraq that don't believe an American presence is a good thing, and Prime Minister Abadi has to balance that," Warren said. "It's a balancing act between what's going to actually help [defeat ISIS] and what can the system absorb, and when I say what can 'the system' absorb, I'm talking about the entire political-military-diplomatic system."
Ramadi battle continues
As Carter was visiting Baghdad, fighting continued in the Iraqi city of Ramadi.
Carter first suggested providing attack helicopters and more combat advisers in the context that battle, saying more U.S. troops and firepower could help tip the fight in favor of Iraq.
About 10,000 Iraqi security forces personnel are closing in on the provincial capital and the estimated 500 Islamic State fighters who are holding the city, Warren said.
Yet the Iraqis so far have been unable to seize the city center, which is wedged between two rivers and is heavily fortified.
The Iraqis have made progress around suburban Ramadi during the past two weeks, including the seizure of a key landmark, the Palestine Bridge, which controls the flow of supplies and people into the city via the Euphrates River.
But on Tuesday, Iraqi security forces temporarily lost control of that bridge, Warren said.
After Islamic State militants successfully retook the bridge, they launched two car bombs at a nearby Iraqi security forces operation center and sent in about 25 fighters on foot to attack the facility, Warren said.
But after some fierce fighting, the Islamic State's success was short lived. The Iraqis destroyed the two car bombs using shoulder-launch AT4 anti-tank missiles. Within a few hours, the Iraqi forces, aided by bombs dropped from American planes overhead, retook the bridge.
"They were pushed off the bridge for about half a day yesterday," Warren said. "After a long day of hard fighting … the battlefield now looks the same as it did two days ago."
For now, the Iraqis are "hardening their position" outside Ramadi and preparing for a final assault.
"They are building berms, they are constructing fighting positions, they are establishing their position — the consolidation and reorganization phase," Warren said.
"The Iraqis need to come up with a plan to get across the river. They are working on that. They need to finalize their plan … for clearing the final piece of Ramadi, which is the city center."
More than 3,500 U.S. troops currently are in Iraq, many of them ordered to stay inside secure Iraqi and Kurdish military facilities and limited to providing local fighters with training and advice.
Putting U.S. advisers into Iraqi combat brigades and sending American pilots in Apaches to support Iraqi ground units in battle would be far more dangerous than most of the current work U.S. troops are doing.
MacFarland said he is "optimistic" that the Iraq security forces can defeat the Islamic State in Ramadi, and he reiterated that he's willing to send in Americans troops to help if needed.
"Right now, things are going pretty well in Ramadi so the Iraq security forces haven't asked us to provide Apache [helicopter] support for them. If they were to ask, we could do that. And we're prepared to do that," he said.
"We're prepared to say yes if requested."