By Phil Stewart
BAGHDAD (Reuters) - U.S. Marine General Joseph Dunford, who took over this month as America's top military officer, pledged on Tuesday to seek new ways to build momentum in Iraq's battle against Islamic State and bucked descriptions of the conflict as a "stalemate."
Emerging from his first trip to Iraq as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Dunford said he was encouraged by the latest battlefield gains, including an advance to secure most of the strategic Baiji oil refinery.
After operational briefings from U.S. commanders and talks with Iraqi leaders, Dunford also said Iraqi security forces had taken critical terrain around the city of Ramadi "and tightened the noose."
The advances, he said, marked a sharp contrast with the picture in Iraq less than two months ago, when the last chairman, General Martin Dempsey, described the state-of-play in Iraq as tactically stalemated.
"Maybe some people would have characterized it as a stalemate a while ago. I'm not willing to say that," Dunford told reporters after a full day of meetings, first in Iraq's Kurdistan region and then in Baghdad.
"We're going to look at a wide range of things that we can do to help the Iraqis generate momentum and reinforce the successes that they're starting to have."
After a request from Iraq's Kurdistan region, Dunford said his team was working to speed supplies of ammunition for Kurdish peshmerga forces.
Dunford cited the possibility of boosting training to Iraq's elite counter-terrorism services, who U.S. officials said led the advance in Baiji, with support of U.S.-led air strikes.
He also noted the need for new vehicles for them and equipment to counter Islamic State bombs.
But he said some of the challenges in Iraq were structural. Iraq's security services are now divided, with different commanders speaking to the United States on behalf of Iraq's army, its Popular Mobilization Forces, its police and Kurdish peshmerga.
That, Dunford says, needs to change.
"If we had one person to talk to that could speak with authority about the campaign ... that's kind of what we need," he said.
Dunford has a long history in Iraq.
As the United States moved toward war with Iraq in 2003, Dunford - then a colonel - found himself commander of Regimental Combat Team 5, the unit that would lead the U.S. invasion, seize the Rumaila oil fields and then head toward Baghdad.
Twelve years later, Dunford acknowledges that conflict in Iraq is still far from over. Regional upheaval, with the rise of Islamic State and the disintegration of the Iraq-Syrian border, has only clouded the picture.
Dunford, who also led international troops in Afghanistan, said he's not going to be drawn into setting timelines to measure progress.
"The one thing I'm going to steer clear of is talking about timelines," Dunford said. "You can't set the bar and consider time a success."
(Reporting by Phil Stewart; Editing by Edmund Klamann)