US Defense Secretary Ash Carter has made an unannounced visit to Iraq to meet US military commanders and Iraqi officials. The visit comes after recent gains in the battle against the self-styled “Islamic State” (IS).
US officials said Carter would meet Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi and Defense Minister Khaled al-Obaidi, in addition to meeting with US Army Lieutenant General Sean MacFarland, who leads coalition against the so-called “Islamic State” (IS) group.
The trip came after security forces managed to seize a major airbase close to IS-held Mosul.
Carter announced that the Qayara airbase, 60 km (40 miles) south of Mosul, would be used as a staging hub, as Iraqi security forces move forward in their efforts to recapture Mosul, the largest Iraqi city still controlled by the militant group. He added that US advisers were prepared to accompany Iraqi battalions in the fight for Mosul, if needed.
A senior defense official said advisers could start accompanying Iraqi battalions in a matter of weeks or months. A team of American troops had reportedly been to Qayara since it was recaptured in order to conduct a quick site assessment.
Carter laid out his vision for Qayara, saying the air base would be a hub from which “Iraqi Security Forces, accompanied and advised by us as needed, will complete the southern-most envelopment of Mosul. That’s its strategic role, and that’s its strategic importance.”
The point of seizing that (Qayara) airfield is to be able to establish a logistics and air hub in the immediate vicinity of Mosul,” Carter told reporters. ”
“So, there will be US logistics support.”
Carter compared the role of Qayara to how forces used the eastern city of Makhmour, where US troops set up a base to support advancing Iraqi units. Carter’s comments came after US President Barack Obama had authorized a US troop level of 4,087 in Iraq as well as a greater involvement in combat – marking an increase of 200 troops compared to previous numbers.
Greater NATO involvement
Carter’s daylong visit to Iraq comes on the heels of the NATO summit where allies agreed to expand their military support for the war. During the NATO summit, allies also approved moves to expand military aid in the fight against IS.
NATO said it would use surveillance aircraft to collect intelligence, and begin training Iraqi forces inside the country, which, until now, had been trained in Jordan.
IS attacks continue
Islamic State militants, however, still control large swaths of the country and of neighboring Syria, with the onslaught of deadly attacks continuing throughout the region.
A massive IS suicide bombing on July 3 in Baghdad’s Karada district saw as many as 186 killed. More recently, 37 people died in an attack at a Shiite shrine north of Baghdad.
ss/rc (Reuters, AP)