Pentagon: ISIL pushed out of 25% of its territory

Jim Michaels, USA TODAY

WASHINGTON — Iraqi forces have pushed the Islamic State out of about 25% of the territory seized during the militants’ lightning advance last year, according to a Pentagon assessment released Monday.

The area represents 5,000 to 6,500 square miles in northern and central Iraq, the assessment said.

The United States has been backing Iraqi forces with daily airstrikes against the Islamic State, also known as ISIL or ISIS.

“ISIL is no longer the dominant force in roughly 25 to 30% of the populated areas of Iraqi territory where it once had complete freedom of movement,” the Pentagon said.

The assessment comes as President Obama is to meet Tuesday with Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi for his first White House visit as prime minister. Al-Abadi has said Iraq needs more international assistance in his country’s fight against Islamic State militants.

The progress against the Islamic State is tempered somewhat by the dominant role played by Iranian-backed militias in the battle against the Sunni militants.

Much of the fighting so far has been conducted by a disparate group of Shiite militias, Kurdish units and the government’s elite counterterrorism forces, highlighting the sectarian nature of the fighting.

A key element of the U.S. strategy in Iraq is to reduce the role of Iranian-backed militias in fighting the Islamic State there, but the Obama administration is finding it has little leverage with Iraq’s government.

“The Iranians are willing to provide assistance without strings,” said Stephen Biddle, a national security analyst and professor at George Washington University. “The Iranians have some very big carrots at their disposal.”

The Iranians have provided advisers and, at times, artillery and rocket support for militias battling the Islamic State.