U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said on Thursday that the Islamic State group's momentum in Iraq had been halted or reversed and that U.S. weapons for government forces would be arriving very shortly.
“In recent months we have seen definitively … momentum halted in Iraq and in some cases reversed," Kerry told a London news conference after a meeting of 21 members of the U.S.-led coalition fighting the Islamic State group.
“Ground forces supported by nearly 2,000 airstrikes now have reclaimed some 700 square kilometers,” he said, adding that Iraqi forces would be getting lots of U.S.-made M16 rifles "very, very shortly.”
“There is an [arms] pipeline here, and it is working,” he said.
Kerry also said the group has made great progress fighting Islamic State forces in Iraq and Syria. He cited successes with airstrikes, advisers traveling with the Iraqi army, efforts to counter the militant ideology and help for victims of the group’s violence.
Can still do better
But he also acknowledged the coalition must do better. “We have decided there are things we can do more of. We can do better on the cutting-off of financing. We can do better on the messaging. We can do better with respect to the supplies, and other things," he said.
Kerry said defeating Islamic State militants was "the challenge of our time," and involved police and intelligence agencies around the world "flushing out" supporters and sleeper cells.
To sum up the meeting, Kerry said that after five months of collaboration on the effort to defeat Islamic State militants, the coalition members "fully recognize how important this moment is and restated their commitment to see this through."
"We know we have to get this right and that is the subject matter that this meeting mostly focused on," he said.
The London talks focused on what can be done to cut off the organization's funding, stop the spread of its propaganda and stem the flow of foreign fighters to its ranks.
Kerry, set to travel Friday to Davos, Switzerland, said he will go into greater detail about global efforts to combat violent extremism during a speech at the World Economic Forum.
The coalition members last met in December when they decided on a five-point plan that involves building up Iraqi forces, stopping the flow of foreign fighters, cutting off financing to the militants, countering their ideology and addressing humanitarian needs.
Earlier Thursday, a U.S. official said the airstrikes had stopped the militants' momentum, killing thousands of fighters and pushing them into a more defensive mode.
The next phase, the official said, is focused on Iraqi forces, particularly a $1.6 billion effort to train and equip 12 new Iraqi brigades.
Fight against IS will take time
Britain's Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond said the task of pushing back the Islamist militants would be slow and it could take up to two years to expel the group.
He also warned that the Iraqi army might be months away from mounting a sustained fightback against Islamic State militants, the French news agency AFP reported.
European countries are also working to stem the flow of foreign fighters to the Islamic State ranks, Hammond said, saying efforts involve detecting and combating the radicalization of Muslim youths in Europe, and using law enforcement powers when necessary.
Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said Iraqi forces are making progress, but more weapons are needed. He also said a recent decline in global oil prices has been disastrous for the Iraqi economy and could have an effect on the military's budget.
"Oil prices have dropped to about 40 percent of their level last year," Abadi said. "Iraq's economy and budget relies 85 percent on oil and this has been disastrous for us. ... We don’t want to see a reverse of our military victory due to our budget and fiscal problems," he said during a news conference with Hammond and Kerry.
Meanwhile, France announced on Thursday that it will send about 40 troops to Iraq in coming days and weeks to train Iraqi and Kurdish forces combating Islamic State fighters, a military spokesman said.
Overall some 800 French troops are involved in support roles in the Western coalition against Islamic State fighters, in addition to nine Rafale war jets, six Mirage jets, a refueling plane and a navy patrol plane deployed in the Gulf region.
French military staff will be sent to Baghdad and Irbil, in the Kurdish region of Iraq, for a training mission expected to last about three months. That will come on top of more than 3,000 U.S. advisers to be deployed in the region.
Elsewhere, the fighting continues in northern Iraq, where Kurdish fighters said they have launched a new "large-scale offensive" against Islamic State fighters.
Kurdish security officials said the operation near the Mosul dam involved air support from the U.S.-led coalition, with 16 airstrikes near Mosul. The bombings destroyed a number of heavy weapons and buildings used by the militants.
On Thursday, the American military said U.S.-led forces attacked Islamic State targets with 21 airstrikes in Iraq and 10 in Syria since Wednesday.
The U.S.-led airstrikes against Islamic State targets in Iraq began in August, and in September expanded to target the group in Syria as well.
Iraq's Abadi said the airstrikes -- roughly 1,000 of them in his country, according to Pentagon data -- have been "very effective."
Japan scrambles to save hostages
Japan said Thursday it is considering all possible ways to gain the release of two hostages held by Islamic State militants.
The Islamic State group, in a video message seen Tuesday, said it would kill the hostages within 72 hours unless it receives $200 million. Based on the video's release time, that deadline would come sometime Friday.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe told reporters Wednesday in Tokyo that he has instructed officials to use every possible diplomatic channel to secure the release of Kenji Goto and Haruna Yukawa.
Abe said Japan "will never give in to terrorism." But neither he nor other Japanese officials have said directly whether Japan would pay the ransom.
The Islamic State video was released just days after Abe pledged $200 million in non-military aid to those countries affected by the Sunni extremists.
Japan is not among the countries directly participating in the coalition battling insurgents in Syria and Iraq.
Al Pessin contributed to this report from London. Some material for this report came from Reuters and AFP.