A military operation to retake the Islamic State group's de facto Syrian capital Raqqa will begin "within weeks," U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter said in an interview Wednesday.
"It's been long a part of our plan that the Mosul operation would kick off when it did," Carter said, referring to the separate battle to recapture the militants' last urban stronghold in neighboring Iraq that began 10 days ago. "This was a plan that goes back many months now and that Raqqa would follow soon behind."
Carter made the remarks in Paris to NBC News before traveling to Brussels for a meeting of NATO defense ministers. There, they are discussing topics related to souring relations with Russia, extremism in the Middle East and the European Union.
The wide-scale offensive for Mosul is being led by Iraqi forces in coalition with Kurdish peshmerga fighters, American advisers, Sunni Muslim paramilitaries and Shia Muslim units. About 25,000 members of this coalition, supported by U.S. air cover, have pushed toward Iraq's second-largest city from several directions as part of an assault that itself is expected to take weeks, if not months, to complete.
The initially swift progress in the campaign for Mosul — focused on liberating the city's surrounding villages — has slowed in recent days amid what appears to be increasingly fierce resistance from jihadist militants who the United Nations suspects of using civilians as human shields, conducting summary executions, setting oil fields on fire and deploying dozens of suicide bombers.
Carter paid an unannounced visit to Baghdad on Saturday, hoping to push Iraq to allow Turkey to assist in the battle for Mosul, but Iraq's Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi brushed off that request. "I know that the Turks want to participate. We tell them thank you, this is something the Iraqis will handle," Al-Abadi said. Turkey nevertheless fired on positions held by the Islamic State near Mosul on Sunday after receiving a request from Kurdish peshmerga fighters.
In the interview with NBC, Carter equivocated on whether the U.S. advisers would enter Mosul or Raqqa. "They are not near (Mosul) at this time ... Our forces do accompany .... the Iraqi security forces and the (Kurdish) peshmerga. So they will get nearer to the city as those forces get nearer to the city ... We are not going to be part of the occupation or hold forces," he said.
USA TODAY previously reported that there were plans to place simultaneous military pressure on the Islamic State's two critical strongholds in Iraq and Syria to thwart the militant group's grip in the region. "If we’re able to do simultaneous operations in and synchronize the Mosul piece and the Raqqa piece, think about the problem that generates for (the Islamic State),” Air Force Lt. Gen. Jeffrey Harrigian said in August.
The UN says it has received reports of dozens of execution-type killings by the Islamic State group (IS), as Iraqi troops close in on Mosul. Video provided by AFP Newslook