General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was visiting Iraq for the first time since President Barack Obama responded to Islamic State advances this summer by ordering troops back into a country they left in 2011.
Hours earlier, an Iraqi army colonel said security forces appeared close to retaking the country’s biggest refinery at Baiji after months under siege by Islamic State militants.
It was not immediately possible to confirm his account.
Obama last week authorized roughly doubling the number of American ground forces as the military expands the reach of its advisors after U.S. air strikes had slowed militant advances.
Dempsey told the troops the U.S. military had helped Iraqi and Kurdish forces “pull Iraq back from the precipice”.
“And now, I think it’s starting to turn. So well done,” Dempsey told a group of Marines at the U.S. embassy in Baghdad. Reuters accompanied him on the trip.
Dempsey said it had been crucial to show Islamic State was not an unstoppable, 10-foot-tall force and instead “a bunch of midgets running around with a really radical ideology”.
He was hardly triumphant, however. Earlier, Dempsey visited a Joint Operations Center and watched a live video feed of a location showing the Islamic State’s black flag waving.
Dempsey repeatedly made the point that military force could not root out Islamic State unless Iraq’s government manages to work across the Sunni-Shi’ite divide.
Building trust would take time and so would the U.S. mission, he said.
“How long? Several years,” said Dempsey.
Dempsey, who also met top Iraqi officials, told Reuters he wanted to find out whether the Iraqis believed they could generate recruits for a training program the United States hopes to get underway next year which would re-train Iraqi units.
“I want to get a sense from them on whether they believe our timeline is feasible,” Dempsey said.
About 1,400 U.S. troops are now on the ground. Obama’s new authorization gives the U.S. military the ability to deploy up to 3,100 troops.