Defense Secretary James Mattis told reporters in Baghdad on Monday that one thing he’s going to emphasize in his 30-day review due soon to President Trump is “the resilience of this army” in Iraq, which just began the operation to take ISIS-occupied west Mosul.
“Recognize it took casualties, it has reconstituted itself both equipment and personnel wise, and as you know, has already crossed the line of departure going against the enemy and west Mosul. This is not something that was a forgone conclusion for an army that only a year ago, many people were questioning,” Mattis said of the Iraqi security forces, which began the operation to liberate Mosul and outlying towns in October and have cleared the section of the city east of the Tigris.
“And you can see the level of capability they’ve constituted in the middle of a war with the kind of operation that you’re right now witnessing today underway,” he added.
Iraqi officials said ISIS withdrew from the Mosul airport today, and the terror group’s security chief, Abu Abdullah, was killed in a drone strike during the battle.
ISIS has been reportedly lashing out at the populace and their own ranks, destroying homes of young men who refuse to fight for the terror group, executing members for poor battlefield performance and demoting some commanders who lose battles.
Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend, commander of U.S. operations in Iraq and Syria, said U.S. advisers have been “operating closer and deeper into the Iraqi formation” as battle conditions entail and he doesn’t “anticipate that we’ll be asked to leave by the government of Iraq immediately after Mosul.”
“I think that the government of Iraq realizes this is a very complex fight and they’re gonna need the assistance of the coalition even beyond Mosul,” Townsend said.
Mattis added that “this is a partnership” even if “there’s been a lot of rocky times out here.”
“But there is no doubt, from my discussions today, the Iraqi people, the Iraqi military and the Iraqi political leadership recognizes what they’re up against and the value of the coalition and the partnership in particular with the United States which has been, as you know, developing very well in terms of this military’s capability,” he said. “So I imagine we’ll be in this fight for a while and we’ll stand by each other.”
The former CENTCOM commander said he’d seen on his trip “a newfound understanding among the Iraqi people about what it means to be an Iraqi country against this kind of threat, how they have worked together.”
“You’ve seen the Peshmerga and the Iraqi security forces working together. You’ve seen some of the militias working alongside them. So there’s something coming together here in terms of political and military maturation, I think, that shows exactly what you’re talking about so we’re not back here five years with that sort of a situation,” Mattis said.
“…Coming back here after the years that we’ve fought alongside each other through good times and bad times, it’s just a privilege to come back and look out the helicopter door and see what’s going on down below, to see an Iraqi military that can fight as truly valiantly as this one has considering the situation they faced as ISIS rose to occupy much of their country and to see that in spite of the casualties, it’s not only held together, it’s come back stronger and is now winning.”
Townsend added that Mosul represents a “remarkable turnaround” for the army that was “broken and defeated” and easily was overrun by ISIS in 2014.
“It is an incredible turnaround,” the general said. “They’ve liberated approaching half of their lost territory and they’re about to liberate their second-largest city, the largest population city center held by ISIS anywhere in the world.”
At a press conference Monday in Abu Dhabi, Mattis was asked about Trump’s suggestion that the U.S. should have seized Iraqi oil, remarks made on the campaign trail and brought up again in his visit to the CIA last month: “We should have kept the oil. But OK,” Trump said. “Maybe you’ll have another chance.”
“I think all of us here in this room, all of us in America, generally paid for our gas and oil all along, and I’m sure that we will continue to do so in the future,” Mattis told reporters. “We’re not in Iraq to seize anybody’s oil.”