BAGHDAD — Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi told U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel on Tuesday that his army is taking the offensive against the Islamic State group but needs more air power and heavy weaponry to prevail.
Hagel, who flew to Baghdad to get a first-hand report on progress against the Islamic State militants, held a series of meetings with top Iraqi government officials and conferred with American military commanders.
He met with al-Abadi at the prime minister's office after addressing a group of U.S. and Australian soldiers at Baghdad International Airport.
Al-Abadi told Hagel as their meeting began that "Daesh (Islamic State) is on the descent at the moment." He said their capabilities had been reduced.
"We are very thankful for the support that's been given to us," al-Abadi said. "Our forces are very much advancing on the ground. But they need more air power and more ... heavy weaponry. We need that."
Asked later about al-Abadi's request, Hagel told reporters, "I appreciated his directness," but he was not more specific about how he responded.
U.S. officials assert that the Iraqis' biggest need is competent military leadership, not additional military hardware.
The prime minister said the Islamic State had acquired extensive weaponry and remained able to move back and forth between Iraq and Syria. That contrasts with statements by U.S. commanders who say the militants' ability to resupply their fighters in Iraq has been severely constrained by airstrikes.
In remarks to reporters later, Hagel said Iraqi forces are preparing for broader counteroffensives.
Hagel said he was leaving Iraq encouraged by progress on the battlefield against the militants and by the Iraqi government's renewed efforts to unify the country.
"As Iraqi leaders and the people of Iraq know, only they can bring lasting peace to their country if they are resolved to do that," he said.
He also said months of attacks on the Islamic State militants have been effective.
"These efforts are thwarting ISIL's ability to maneuver, communicate, coordinate and control their forces, as well as their ability to sustain and resupply themselves," Hagel said, using an alternative acronym for the extremist group. "Iraqi forces will be able to intensify offensive operations as the coalition's training effort expands into northern, western and central Iraq."
On what is expected to be his last overseas trip as Pentagon chief, Hagel landed at the airport under tight security. He is the first U.S. defense secretary to visit Iraq since Leon Panetta was here in December 2011 to mark the end of the U.S. military mission.
Hagel said Monday during a visit to Kuwait that he believes Iraq's security forces have gained a new momentum, thanks in part to sustained U.S. airstrikes against Islamic State militants.
The U.S. is committed to helping Iraq roll back the territorial gains the militants made earlier this year, but President Barack Obama has ruled out sending American ground combat forces. He maintains that any lasting solution in Iraq can only be carried out by a newly unified Iraqi government.
At the peak of the war in Iraq the U.S. had about 170,000 troops in the country. When it pulled out, in December 2011, U.S. officials said they believed Iraq was on track to long-term stability. There are about 1,650 U.S. troops in Iraq now.
During his stop in Kuwait, Hagel said the Islamic State group remains a formidable threat, not only to Iraq but also to neighboring Iran and other countries in the region. He repeated the U.S. government's policy of not coordinating military action in Iraq with Iran, but he also suggested that Iran has reason to be concerned about the long-term ambitions of the Islamic State.
"They are threatened by ISIL, just like every government in the Middle East is clearly threatened by ISIL," Hagel said.
U.S. officials said last week that Iran had recently conducted airstrikes in the eastern Iraqi province of Diyala.
The top U.S. commander for the military campaign against Islamic State said in Kuwait on Monday that Islamic State fighters have lost the initiative in Iraq.
Lt. Gen. James Terry told a small group of reporters that the Islamic State is "on defense, trying to hold what they have gained." He added that the group, which is armed with tanks and other U.S.-made war equipment captured from the Iraqi army, is "still able to conduct some limited attacks."