The Islamic State's assault on northern Iraq last summer galvanized the country's rival factions to fight a common enemy and halt the militant group's momentum, U.S. Vice President Joe Biden said on Thursday.
In an upbeat assessment before a White House meeting next week between U.S. President Barack Obama and Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi, Biden said Iraq has gained the upper hand against the radical Sunni group since it seized territory in Iraq and Syria and declared a “caliphate” eight months ago.
At that time, the world saw the Iraqi army “melt away,” Iraqi government assets seized and brutal acts committed in Islamic State-controlled territory, Biden said.
Doomsday scenarios of Iraq being split apart persist, when in fact “ISIL's momentum in Iraq has halted and in many places had been flat out reversed,” he said, using an acronym for the group.
“The irony of all ironies is that Iraq was actually helped [to] form its government because of ISIL. ISIL, the very outfit that intended to tear Iraq apart and establish a caliphate, it actually united Iraqis,” Biden said.
In a speech at the National Defense University, Biden praised Iraqi leaders from Sunni, Shi'ite and Kurdish factions for pulling together to form an inclusive government, agree to a budget and mobilize thousands of Sunni fighters to battle Islamic State.
He said Iraqi government forces have made significant gains on the battlefield, with help coalition airstrikes, including 1,300 by the U.S. military alone.
Islamic State has lost large areas it once dominated including Mosul Dam, Mount Sinjar and the city of Tikrit, Biden noted.
Iraqi security forces launched a new offensive against Islamic State insurgents in the Sunni Muslim heartland of Anbar on Wednesday, seeking to build on a victory over the jihadist group last week in Tikrit.
The militants captured Tikrit last June as they swept through most of Iraq's Sunni Muslim territories, swatting aside a demoralized and disorganized army that has now required an uneasy mix of Iranian and U.S. support to get back on its feet.
Biden urged Iraq's leaders to continue to compromise in the face of complicated sectarian divisions and not to lose the political urgency that brought them this far.
“There's still a long fight a head - I don't want to paint an overly rosy picture here - but ISIL's aura of invincibility has been pierced,” he said.