Iraq’s Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi wrapped up his inaugural visit to the US on Thursday, winning pledges that long-delayed F-16 fighter jets will soon be delivered and vowing to calm the sectarian tensions dividing his country.
The new prime minister, who took office in September and replaced the divisive Nuri al-Maliki, denied he had come to Washington with a shopping list of weapons for Iraqi forces.
But, after three days of meetings, including with lawmakers and Tuesday’s White House talks with President Barack Obama, he appeared not to be leaving empty-handed.
Vice President Joe Biden congratulated Abadi on “a very successful visit,” adding that the Iraq-US partnership would “grow long after” the Islamic State group is defeated.
During talks with US administration officials, Abadi said he had been assured that 36 F-16s ordered by Iraq as far back as 2011 would be delivered soon.
Iraq has had no real air force since the US-led invasion ousted late dictator Saddam Hussein in 2003.
The fighter jets will play a vital role battling the Islamic State (IS) jihadist militants who have captured a large swathe of Abadi’s country, as well as parts of neighboring Syria.
“What we are facing in Iraq is a polarization of society fuelled by this terrorism,” Abadi told a Washington think tank on the final day of his visit.
Flush from the success in wresting back control of Tikrit, US officials were also sympathetic to his plea to help equip two brigades of Iraqi forces in training to lead the fight to recapture Anbar, Iraq’s largest province, from the IS militants, Abadi said.
“Our government’s highest priority is reducing ethnic and sectarian tensions and divisions in Iraq,” he assured the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Whatever the root causes of the tensions, Iraq had to “ensure that they do not paralyze the development of our nation.”
Baghdad has announced its next battle against the Islamic State is retaking Anbar province, before setting its sights on the country’s second city, Mosul, captured at the start of jihadists’ lightning offensive last year.
But Abadi said Iraq had to ensure everything is fully prepared before launching the operation.
Iraqi security forces have been helped by US-led air strikes against the Sunni militants, as well as by loose coalition of Shiite militias.
Washington says Iranian officers have provided advice and artillery to Shiite militias involved in retaking Tikrit in recent weeks.
– Sovereignty paramount –
And, while Abadi thanked Tehran for its support, he insisted “everything must be done through the government of Iraq.”
“We ask the United States and coalition partners to continue to support Iraq militarily, through providing weaponry, training and advisers, the sharing of critical intelligence,” he said.
He urged the US to speed up its bombing missions, maintaining that at times there was a significant time lag between calling up an air strike and it actually happening.
The talks in Washington had addressed how to make the strikes “more precise and more effective.”
During his talks with Obama and US military leaders, Abadi mapped out the next phases of the campaign including the continuation of US and allied air support.
“We made clear that so long as these operations are planned with us, that the units are operating under the command and control of the Iraqi chain of command up to the prime minister, we’ll be providing air support,” the US pointman on Iraq, Brett McGurk, told Sawa radio.
Ambassador McGurk also said the first Iraqi F-16 pilots would graduate from advanced training this week, adding that the “F-16s would be over (Iraqi) skies protecting Iraqis very soon.”
On Tuesday, Obama hailed the US-backed Iraqi forces’ progress against the militants, saying they were “making serious progress” taking back a quarter of the territory lost last year.
While he made no public commitment on more weapons for Iraq, Obama announced an additional $200 million in humanitarian aid for displaced civilians.