Pentagon chief in Irbil for closer assessment of Mosul fight

Ash Carter (Courtesy: ABC News)
Ash Carter (Courtesy: ABC News)

IRBIL, Iraq (AP) — U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter visited Irbil on Sunday for a closer assessment of the fight against the Islamic State group in northern Iraq and to hear from Kurdish leaders whose forces launched a new offensive in the operation to wrest Mosul from the militants.

Carter met with Kurdish leader Masoud Barzani, as well as U.S. service members, who are not far from the battle. The Pentagon chief said Barzani reported some good news about peshmerga gains against IS in Bashiqa, about 15 miles (24 kilometers) northeast of Mosul.

Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, told reporters that the information he has gathered suggests Barzani was correct and that there has been “considerable success” in the town. Townsend said he didn’t know whether any fighting was still going on in the town center and whether every house had been cleared, but he largely confirmed the peshmerga’s success and said the Kurdish forces merit recognition for their success.

Carter said he wants to see military operations to isolate IS fighters in Raqqa, Syria, to begin “as soon as possible.” He said there will be simultaneous operations in Mosul and Raqqa, and that the United States would coordinate in Raqqa with its partners. The U.S. has been working with Syrian rebel fighters.

Townsend said the U.S.-led coalition has had success killing IS leaders, which helps with the Raqqa fight.

Ash Carter (Courtesy: ABC News)
Ash Carter (Courtesy: ABC News)

During the meeting with Barzani, Carter praised the efforts of the Kurdish forces, known as peshmerga, and acknowledged their battle losses.

“They fight extremely well. But because they’re fighting hard, they suffer … casualties,” said Carter, who spent Saturday in Baghdad getting updates from his military leadership and meeting with Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi. The U.S. is prepared to provide additional support for the fight if requested by Iraq and U.S. commanders, Carter said in the capital.

Peshmerga Brig. Gen. Halgord Hekmet, a spokesman for the Kurdish forces, told reporters that 25 of their troops have been killed since the battle to retake Mosul began and a “large number” had been wounded. Speaking through an interpreter, he said the peshmerga have had good coalition air support, but could use more military resources, especially armored vehicles.

He said that most of the fallen peshmerga were riding in regular cars and were more vulnerable. A second priority, he said, would be more devices to help detect roadside bombs.

The peshmerga are advancing toward Mosul from the north in long columns of armored vehicles and other trucks. More than 100 U.S. special operations forces are embedded with the Kurds and Iraqi military commandos. Irbil is about 55 miles (90 kilometers) southeast of Mosul.

Mosul is a Sunni majority town, and many worry about the involvement of government-sanctioned Shiite fighters. But they also are suspicious about the Kurds, who have ambitions to expand their self-rule area into parts of Ninevah province, where Mosul is located — although not to the city itself.

U.S. military officials say the peshmerga will stop their advance about 20 miles (30 kilometers) outside of Mosul and hold that territory to ensure the militants don’t regroup. Shiite militias have said they will not enter the city itself.

Carter fueled debate in Iraq on Friday when he met with Turkish leaders and suggested their country should play a role in the Mosul battle. On Saturday, al-Abadi balked at that idea, saying his country’s own forces will oust IS from the city.

Some 500 Turkish troops at a base north of Mosul have been training Sunni and Kurdish fighters since December. The Iraqi government says the troops are there without permission and has called on them to withdraw. Turkey has refused and insists it will play a role in liberating the city.

IS captured Mosul and the surrounding area during a lightning advance across northern Iraq in the summer of 2014.