- Associated Press - Sunday, December 21, 2014

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) - Kansas Sen. Pat Roberts said Sunday that he saw signs of progress in fighting against Islamic State militants in Iraq during a weekend trip there to visit U.S. troops.

Roberts said he was encouraged by the success of Iraqi Kurdish fighters in pushing back the Islamic State group around the contested northern Iraqi town of Sinjar. He said U.S. troops in Iraq, including about 400 from the Army’s 1st Infantry Division, headquartered at Fort Riley, are playing key roles in providing intelligence and training Iraqis, along with providing air support.

The Republican senator arrived Thursday night in Kuwait to visit U.S. troops. He went to the Iraqi capital of Baghdad to meet with Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi and his defense and foreign ministers Saturday and was in the Kurdish city of Erbil in northern Iraq on Sunday. He gave a telephone interview to The Associated Press after returning to Kuwait.

Roberts said he wants to be careful not to be overly optimistic, but he said he believes al-Abadi has strengthened the Iraqi military’s leadership in the past 100 days and is trying to reconcile his nation’s Sunni and Shiite Muslims. The senator also said morale among U.S. troops and commanders is good.

The senator said he believes many Americans see Iraq as being in a “free fall” after the Islamic State this summer captured control of parts of northern and western Iraq.

“Success is yet to be determined, without question, but it is not in a free fall like I think so many Americans think it might be,” Roberts said. “Things have changed dramatically, according to all of our personnel.”

Roberts later acknowledged: “I went in expecting the worst.”

About 1,700 U.S. troops are in Iraq, and President Barack Obama has authorized up to 3,000 to advise and train Iraqi forces. Roberts said there’s still a question as to whether the Iraqi defense forces can match the combat readiness of tough Kurdish fighters.

Roberts met Saturday with al-Abadi, who took power in September, and sees him as a “big improvement” over former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Roberts said the new prime minister quickly replaced senior military officers to encourage cooperation between Sunnis and Shiites.

“I’m just guardedly impressed,” Roberts said.

He said the Kurdish fighters’ successes Sunday were evidence that the U.S. approach can work.

“We will be offering, again, the intelligence, the targeting, all of that,” he said, adding that the Iraqis will provide the “boots on the ground.”

“I’m more optimistic than I was,” he said.

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Online:

Roberts’ Senate office: https://www.roberts.senate.gov/public/

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Follow John Hanna on Twitter at https://twitter.com/apjdhanna .

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