U.S. Vice President Joe Biden offered a full-throated defense of the Obama administration’s Iraq policy Thursday, saying that while there is still much to do in the fight against Islamic militants there, “the momentum is in the right direction.”
Biden, speaking at National Defense University in Washington, acknowledged the speed at which the Islamic State (also known as ISIS or ISIL) took over swaths of Iraq last year, storming cities and towns, brutalizing the Iraqi population, and stuffing its coffers with cash stolen from Iraqi banks.
Rebuffing criticism that the U.S. didn’t do enough fast enough in Iraq, Biden argued that the administration’s approach is now paying dividends. Under the leadership of Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, approved by the Iraqi Parliament in September, Baghdad formed a more inclusive government and agreed upon a more equitable revenue-sharing plan among sectarian groups. In the meantime, the U.S. worked with the new Iraqi government to prop up its forces with training, equipment and other support.
“The jury’s still out, that’s the truth. It’s not over yet,” Biden said of the situation in Iraq. “But the momentum is in the right direction.”
Just months ago, that momentum was going in another direction. But a withering, U.S.-led air campaign, combined with a stronger government in Baghdad and a slightly more confident Iraq security force has all helped blunt the Islamic State’s efforts.
The U.S. and Iraq heralded the recent recapture of the city of Tikrit in northern Iraq. Biden said the Islamic State’s “aura of invincibility has been pierced.”
The vice president acknowledged that the depth of the group’s brutality is still being uncovered. Just this week, Iraqis have begun to exhume the remains of what militants claim is more than 1,700 Iraqi soldiers killed last year.
Biden’s remarks come a week before Abadi’s visit to Washington in which he and Obama are expected to discuss U.S. support for Iraq’s effort against the Islamic State. Baghdad has generally pushed Washington to accelerate its delivery of weapons and other equipment to the Iraqis. Abadi is expected to point to some early successes — such as the one in Tikrit — in his bid for more support from the U.S.
After removing all but a small contingent of American troops from Iraq in 2011, the administration has slowly put them back in. Today, the U.S. has almost 3,000 troops in Iraq. While they are not considered combat troops who will conduct military operations themselves, they are providing training, logistical, intelligence and other support to Iraqi forces.
Defense Secretary Ash Carter, traveling in Asia, noted that the Tikrit operation was accomplished under the command and control of the Iraqi government – not the U.S. military – and that indeed that was a condition on which the U.S. provided assistance.
The next big operation against the Islamic State will likely unfold in Anbar Province in western Iraq, to be followed by another: to re-take Mosul in the northern region. The latter operation, first thought to be getting underway this spring, appears to have been delayed for at least another few months. “Mosul as a military objective, we’ve said before, will be the subject of an offensive to retake it when we are ready — that is, specifically when the Iraqi security forces are ready — and to make that a success,” Carter told reporters April 6.
Biden noted that while the U.S. no longer has tens of thousands of service members in Iraq, the troops there now is just as deserving of Americans’ gratitude.
“It’s an obligation that is as intense and as real as it was when we had those 160,000 troops there,” Biden said.