BAGHDAD (AFP) – Pentagon chief Ashton Carter flew into Baghdad Monday for talks on the fight against the Islamic State group and the strategy to recapture Iraq’s second city Mosul from the militants.
Carter is set to meet Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi on the unannounced visit — his fourth to Iraq since beginning his job in February 2015.
His trip comes two days after Iraq announced the recapture of a base to the south of Mosul that is seen as an important step toward the eventual battle for the city, which has been under IS control since June 2014.
More than two years after IS overran large parts of Iraq as well as territory in neighbouring Syria, Carter wants to highlight successes, even as the militants have fought back with devastating attacks in Iraq and abroad.
But the militants are still capable of carrying out devastating attacks even as they are pushed back, including a bombing in Baghdad earlier this month that was one of the deadliest to ever hit the country.
“What I’ll be discussing with Prime Minister Abadi and our commanders there are the next plays in the campaign, which involve the collapse and control over Mosul,” Carter told reporters aboard a military plane ahead of his visit.
The ultimate goal, he added, was “the recapture of all of Iraqi territory by the Iraqi security forces, but of course Mosul is the biggest part of that.”
The Qayyarah airbase, which Abadi announced Saturday had been recaptured, is located 60 kilometres (35 miles) south of Mosul and can serve as a launchpad for future operations to recapture the city.
US defence officials say the campaign’s first “10 plays” have been successfully completed in the US-led counter-IS campaign in Iraq and Syria.
IS losing ground
These steps include the recapture of several important cities across the two countries, including Ramadi in Iraq and Al-Shadadi, a town in northeastern Syria previously considered a strategic IS stronghold.
Carter and President Barack Obama have been criticised for the pace of the campaign, which began in autumn 2014 and got off to a slow start, particularly in war-torn Syria, where the United States had few assets on the ground to provide targeting information.
The Pentagon has announced a series of measures to speed up the war, including a revised mission to train anti-IS rebels in northern Syria and extra advisers for Iraqi forces.
Coupled with coalition air support, the results have seen the IS group losing roughly half its territory in Iraq and about 20 percent of its Syria claim.
But the militants have struck back against civilians as they lost ground.
On July 3, IS carried out a devastating bombing targeting shoppers in Baghdad, killing 292, many of whom were burned alive, and sparking widespread anger among Iraqis, some of whom have accused the government of not doing enough to protect them.
Four days later, the militants struck a Shiite shrine north the capital, leaving another 40 dead.
Carter will meet with US troops including Lieutenant General Sean MacFarland, the commander of the US-led operation against IS, and Iraqi Defence Minister Khalid al-Obeidi.
About 4,000 US troops are in Iraq, mainly to train local forces.
The Pentagon chief will also phone Massud Barzani, the de facto president of Iraq’s Kurdistan region.
The United States has pledged $415 million to help Kurdish peshmerga fighters as they join the fight for Mosul, moving in from the north.