BAGHDAD — U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter made an unannounced visit to Iraq on Saturday to receive an on-the-ground progress report on the battle to liberate the key city of Mosul from ISIS.
Carter, who will also meet with Iraqi officials during the trip, arrived as the formal Iraqi campaign to oust ISIS entered its sixth day. Iraqi and Kurdish forces have encircled Mosul, and U.S. artillery and gunships are pounding enemy positions on the city's outskirts.
U.S. officials insist that Iraqi and Kurdish peshmerga forces are leading the battle and the approximately 5,000 U.S. personnel in the country are playing a secondary role.
Still, dangers for American forces persist. Yesterday, a U.S. service member was killed when his vehicle triggered an improvised explosive devise in northern Iraq, according to officials. He was transported to Kurdish-controlled city of Irbil, but died of his wounds.
While speaking to reporters, Carter addressed the dangers American soldiers faced and reminded them of the U.S. military’s goal.
“Everyone needs to understand that there are Americans here in harm’s way,” he said. “Their mission is to bring the enormous might of the American and coalition (in) support of the Iraqi military forces.”
Officials have expressed cautious optimism on how the initial phase of the campaign to liberate Mosul has unfolded, but they stress that ISIS has a battled-hardened force that is both callous and creative. On Friday, ISIS launched an attack in Kirkurk, in Kurdish held territory. Local reports said the attack killed an estimated 40 people.
Despite the cautious optimism, Carter noted that a victory is not solely achieved through military might, indicating that an ISIS defeat could require a larger investment.
“Stabilization, reconstruction and governance: those are important roles that will go on for some time and will go on to make military victory stick,” he told reporters.
In addition to assisting in what could be a protracted military campaign, Carter may have some delicate diplomacy to conduct.
Turkey, a member of the NATO alliance, which also shares a more than 200-mile border Iraq, has insisted that it wants to take part in the liberation of Mosul. Iraq has not agreed to Turkey's participation.
Carter met with Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Prime Minister Binali Yildirim and Defense Minister Fikri Isik, in Ankara, Turkey, on Friday.
The U.S. defense secretary said that they had reached "an agreement in principle" on Turkey's participation in the Mosul campaign. On Saturday, Carter met with Iraq's president, Haider al-Badi, who has not publicly acceded to Turkey's wishes.
Carter is also scheduled to meet with officials in Abu Dhabi on Monday before flying to Paris for discussions on how to counter any attacks ISIS may attempt in Europe or elsewhere in the West. He then travels to Brussels for a NATO summit.