Iraq says Islamic State still fierce; eyes Baiji, Anbar fights

Iraq's Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi speaks during a news conference at the Foreign Ministry in Baghdad March 31, 2015. REUTERS/Ahmed Saad

By Phil Stewart WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Iraq's prime minister said on Wednesday that the Islamic State remains a fierce adversary as he outlined plans during a trip to Washington to prioritize battles in the refinery city of Baiji and Anbar province, where the militants are striking back. Haidar al-Abadi, speaking to reporters a day after meeting U.S. President Barack Obama, portrayed a mixed picture of a weakening Islamic State eight months after U.S.-led air strikes against the group began in Iraq. The United States estimates Islamic State has lost about a quarter of the populated areas it seized in Iraq. Abadi himself recently declared a major victory by taking back the city of Tikrit. Asked whether Islamic State's defeat was in sight as major campaign milestones approach, Abadi was measured, saying the group was on that path, but still showed some resilience and was proving "very mobile." "They (are) ideologized ... and their backs are against a wall. So they are putting (up) very fierce fighting," he said. Iraqi authorities believe Islamic State recruitment among foreigners, as a percentage of the entire force, has increased dramatically in recent months, in what Abadi said may be a sign that recruitment among Iraqis was thinning. He said some fighters, presumably of Chechen origin, were heard speaking Russian in intercepted communications. Islamic State forces gained some ground in western Iraq on Wednesday, overrunning several villages on the edge of Ramadi, the capital of Anbar province. Abadi announced this month a new Anbar campaign, which was intended to build upon the victory in Tikrit. He also told reporters in Washington that Baiji was a priority. "We are going at the same time - Baiji and al Anbar," he said. The hardline Islamists have struck back in Anbar in the Sunni heartland as well as Baiji, where they blasted through the security perimeter around Iraq's largest refinery several days ago. Asked about his efforts to arm Sunni tribal forces in Anbar, Abadi said about 5,000 Sunni fighters now had weapons, adding they wanted more advanced weaponry, like heavy machine guns, but Baghdad had none to spare. Abadi also acknowledged that the major battle to wrest back control of Mosul, Iraq's second city, was still months away and would not happen until after Ramadan, the Muslim fasting month, which ends in mid-July. A U.S. military official said recently the extreme summer heat after Ramadan made any effort to retake Mosul before the fall unlikely. (Reporting by Phil Stewart; editing by David Storey and G Crosse)