Top U.S. general plays down chances of Russian air campaign in Iraq

Marine Corps General Joseph Dunford testifies during the Senate Armed Services committee nomination hearing to be chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff on Capitol Hill in Washington, July 9, 2015. REUTERS/Yuri Gripas

By Phil Stewart BAGHDAD (Reuters) - U.S. Marine General Joseph Dunford played down the chances of Russia waging an air campaign against Islamic State in Iraq in the near future as he made his first trip to Iraq as the top U.S. military official. Russia's military intervention in Syria and its participation in a new Baghdad-based intelligence-sharing cell with Iran, Syria and Iraq has raised concerns in Washington that its Cold War rival is gaining influence in the Middle East. Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said on Oct. 1, the same day Dunford took over as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, that he would welcome Russian air strikes against Islamic State militants in his country. But Dunford said U.S. officials had since been reassured that Abadi had made no such request to Moscow. "Subsequent to that, U.S. officials engaged Abadi and he did not request Russian air strikes," Dunford told reporters traveling with him, ahead of talks with Abadi. Russia's military intervention in Syria has radically changed the landscape in the U.S.-led campaign against Islamic State, which seized vast tracts of Iraq and Syria last year. Some Iraqi officials have expressed frustration with the extent of U.S. military support. A senior Iraqi parliamentary figure said last week that Baghdad had already begun bombing Islamic State jihadists with the help of a new intelligence center in Baghdad staffed by Russian, Iraqi, Iranian and Syrian officials. Dunford landed about half an hour later than planned in Erbil, capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, his first stop, after his military aircraft was rerouted by air traffic controllers in Baghdad who were unfamiliar with his flight plans. Dunford later traveled to Baghad and met Iraq's defense minister. "Clearly, being in the job about two weeks, one of the things I wanted to do is go over here, get eyes on the ground," Dunford said. The U.S. strategy in Iraq and in Syria hinges on supporting local ground forces, backed by U.S.-led coalition air strikes, to recapture ground from Islamic State, which has swept through northern Iraq and in May captured the city of Ramadi. U.S. and Iraqi security forces are touting recent battlefield gains, including securing most of the Baiji oil refinery, with significant advances by Iraqi counter-terrorism forces in the past 72 hours. Still, U.S. Army Major Michael Filanowski, a Baghdad-based operations officer in the U.S.-led coalition, said Iraqi forces were still encountering bombs and sniper fire as they push through the center of the refinery, and taking casualties. U.S. officials have also cited incremental gains around the city of Ramadi ahead of a long-awaited push into city center. Nonetheless, the overall campaign against Islamic State appears to be moving slowly and major objectives, such as retaking the city of Mosul, appear distant. (Editing by Alison Williams)