Defense secretary Ash Carter arrived in Baghdad on Sunday, to meet American commanders and Iraqi leaders and to assess progress in the fight to retake the northern city of Mosul from Islamic State militants.
The unannounced visit came as Iraqi security forces have been slowed in their nearly two-month-old offensive against Isis, which has occupied Mosul for more than two years.
Carter flew into Baghdad aboard a military cargo plane. He was scheduled to meet with the prime minister, Haider al-Abadi, as well as top US and coalition commanders.
In Bahrain on Saturday, Carter announced he was sending another 200 troops to Syria to train and advise local fighters combatting Isis. There were already 300 US troops authorized for the Syria effort, and some 5,000 in Iraq.
The recapture of Mosul, the country’s second-largest city, is crucial to Iraqi hopes of restoring sovereignty, although political stability will probably remain a challenge.
Carter told an international security conference in Bahrain that the battle for Mosul and for the Syrian city of Raqqa, the de facto capital of the extremists’ self-described caliphate, would be crucial for defeating the group, which has claimed attacks worldwide.
“The seizure of these two cities is necessary to ensure the destruction of Isil’s parent tumor in Iraq and Syria – the primary objective of our military campaign — and put Isil on an irreversible path to a lasting defeat,” he said, using another acronym for Isis.
He did not predict how long it might take for Iraqi forces to prevail in Mosul, but he sounded a note of optimism.
“This is a complex mission that will take time to accomplish, but I am confident that Isil’s days in Mosul are numbered,” he said in Bahrain.
Iraqi forces have only captured a handful of eastern Mosul neighborhoods since launching the offensive in mid-October. On Sunday they came under mortar fire as they worked to clear villages along the Tigris river to the south, part of operations to secure supply lines for a campaign that is likely to stretch into the coming year.
Carter, whose tenure as defense secretary will end in January if his designated successor – the retired marine general James Mattis – is confirmed by the Senate as expected, also made the case for keeping US forces in Iraq even after Isis is dislodged from Mosul.
“Beyond security, there will still be towns to rebuild, services to re-establish, and communities to restore,” he said in Bahrain. The extremists, he predicted, would attempt to survive by reinventing themselves “in some other shape or form” after they lose their grip on Iraq and Syria.
Left unsaid was a possible change in course under Donald Trump when he takes office next month.