U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel visits troops in Kuwait before leaving for Baghdad. (Pool/Reuters)

The Iraqi government appealed to U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel on Tuesday for additional air power and heavy weapons as Iraq struggles to expel the well-armed Islamic State militants who are dug in across a vast area of the country.

Hagel, paying an hours-long visit to Iraq as he prepares to step down from his Pentagon position, underscored the significant expansion in U.S. military assistance since the Islamic State group swept into northern Iraq from Syria in the summer. But he also delivered the tough-love message of President Obama’s White House: The fight is ultimately Iraqis’ own to win or lose.

“As Iraqi leaders and the people of Iraq know, only they can bring lasting peace to their country,”
Hagel told reporters after meetings with senior Iraqi officials. “I believe the Iraqi people are resolved to do this.”

Hagel said he was “encouraged” by the progress that Iraq was making six months after the fall of Mosul, the country’s second-
largest city, as Iraqi forces claim some successes in dislodging the militant group from areas such as the Mosul Dam or around the critical Baiji oil refinery.

Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, who U.S. officials are hoping will end the sectarianism that provided a foothold for the Islamic State, said the extremist group was now “on the descent” despite its extensive arsenal and the ability of its fighters to move between Iraq and Syria.

U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel. (Mark Wilson/AP)

“We are very thankful for the support that’s been given to us,” Abadi told Hagel at the start of a meeting in Baghdad’s fortified Green Zone. Since the summer, Obama has sent 1,650 U.S. troops to Iraq. As part of a plan to retrain portions of the Iraqi army, that force could grow to about 3,000 in the short term.

Abadi stressed the urgency of defeating the Islamic State. “Our forces are very much advancing on the ground. But they need more air power and more . . . heavy weaponry. We need that,” he said.

Speaking to reporters later,
Hagel declined to say whether the United States would increase the tempo of airstrikes that its warplanes, along with those from allied nations, have been conducting on militant targets in Iraq since August. U.S. military leaders say that American-led airstrikes in Iraq and Syria have stalled the militant group’s expansion in Iraq and damaged its ability to fund operations in both countries.

But U.S. officials have linked the frequency and location of their airstrikes to the movements of Iraqi forces, which have had limited success against the militants. Iraqi troops, along with Kurdish peshmerga forces and volunteer fighters, have yet to try the recapture of some of the most significant areas under Islamic State control, including Mosul. U.S. officials say strikes will be expanded only to match or assist the advances of Iraqi troops.

The Obama administration has been working to expedite delivery of military equipment, including Hellfire missiles and mine-resistant vehicles. But Iraqi officials have expressed dismay about the pace of the weapons transfers, which must pass through the U.S. bureaucracy. The plodding delivery also may have encouraged greater Iraqi military reliance on Iran, a U.S. adversary.

As he did in Afghanistan days ago, Hagel used the visit to express support for U.S. troops on the ground. The former senator from Nebraska, who became the first former enlisted soldier to become U.S. defense secretary, is leaving the Pentagon as the White House refocuses military policy on renewed Middle East operations.

Obama has nominated Ashton Carter, a former senior Pentagon official, to replace Hagel. The appointment needs Senate confirmation.

Hagel was a critic of President George W. Bush’s management of the previous war in Iraq and broke with fellow Republicans to oppose Bush’s troop surge during the conflict. Now, Hagel is overseeing a much smaller buildup of U.S. troops in Iraq, aimed at countering a group that is trying to extend its realm across the Middle East.

The Islamic State remains a powerful force within Sunni Arab areas of Iraq and in neighboring Syria, where more than three years of fighting between President Bashar al-Assad’s military and opposition forces have provided the militant group space and resources to grow strong.

The U.S.-led campaign against the Islamic State has garnered support in the West and, unusually, from across the Middle East. The general overseeing U.S. operations against the group said this week that U.S. partners would provide up to 1,500 troops for the effort to retrain and advise Iraqi forces.

The White House has expanded its role in this new Middle East conflict reluctantly, only three years after Obama ended the costly, nearly nine-year war that began in Iraq in 2003.

Hagel assured U.S. troops at Baghdad airport that the U.S. reprise in Iraq would be different. “We can help, we can train, we can assist, we can advise. And we’re doing that,” he said. “It is their country. They have to lead. They are the ones that are going to have to be responsible for end results.”