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IRAQ WARS
Mattis in Baghdad as Iraq presses assault on IS bastion
By Paul Handley with Ahmad al-Rubaye at Tal Afar Airbase
Baghdad (AFP) Aug 22, 2017


Pentagon chief in Baghdad: IS jihadists 'on the run'
Baghdad (AFP) Aug 22, 2017 - US Defence Secretary Jim Mattis said Tuesday that the Islamic State group is "on the run" in Iraq and that security is returning after a four year battle against the jihadists.

As Iraqi forces battled the group inside its northern stronghold of Tal Afar, having ousted it from second city Mosul in July, Mattis visited Baghdad for a day of talks with Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi and top military officials.

"Cities have been liberated, people freed from ISIS, from Daesh," Mattis said, using alternative names for IS.

"The economy is recovering, Iraq is reengaging with the region, and ISIS is on the run."

The jihadists have not been able "to stand up to our team in combat, and they have not retaken one inch of ground that they lost," he said.

US military officials said the new offensive in Tal Afar is proceeding "according to plan".

Iraqi troops backed by coalition air strikes broke through IS defences on the edge of the city Monday night.

Iraqi and coalition aircraft have launched dozens of strikes on the city, where IS fighters have had three years to build up their defences.

Mattis said that despite taking heavy casualties during the nine-month siege of Mosul, Iraqi forces had gained confidence from their victory and were seeking to speed up counter-IS operations.

"It's not over yet, there's hard fighting ahead. They are aware of this and committed to it. They want to accelerate it," he said.

General Stephen Townsend, commander of the US-led operation against IS in Iraq and Syria, said the jihadist group's command and control structure had been significantly disrupted.

"Our coalition operations have freed five million people from the clutches of ISIS, and so far they have not retaken any of that land," he said.

After talks in Baghdad, Mattis flew to Erbil for talks with Iraqi Kurdish leader Massud Barzani as the autonomous Kurdistan region prepares for an independence referendum.

The US and coalition partners are strongly opposed to the poll, slated for September.

"Our point right now is to stay focused like a laser beam on the defeat of ISIS and to let nothing distract us," Mattis said ahead of the meeting.

Pentagon chief Jim Mattis held talks in Baghdad Tuesday to show US support for Iraqi forces as they pressed an assault on Tal Afar, the Islamic State group's last major bastion in the country's north.

Mattis said he wanted to keep the spotlight on eradicating IS jihadists, in remarks before going into meetings with Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi and other top officials.

"Right now our focus is on defeating ISIS inside Iraq, restoring Iraqi sovereignty and territorial integrity," the US defence secretary said, using an alternative acronym for IS.

Iraqi troops, supported by the forces of a US-led international coalition, routed IS in Mosul in July after a gruelling nine-month fight for Iraq's second city.

They launched an offensive on Sunday to recapture Tal Afar, once a key IS supply hub between Mosul -- around 70 kilometres (45 miles) to the east -- and the Syrian border.

The jihadists inside Tal Afar -- estimated to number around 1,000 -- responded with artillery fire as the Iraqi forces massed outside the city

"The assault was launched on the city itself," said Ahmed al-Assadi, spokesman for the Hashed al-Shaabi Shiite-dominated paramilitary coalition that has been fighting IS alongside government forces.

Units of the Hashed, army and police had encircled the city despite what Assadi described as "intense" fighting. He said the fighting for the city would likely last weeks.

Mattis declined to make any predictions on the battle.

"ISIS's days are certainly numbered, but it's not over yet and it's not going to be over anytime soon," he said.

- 'Fought like the dickens' -

Iraqi forces had "fought like the dickens in Mosul, (it) cost them over 6,000 wounded, somewhere over 1,200 killed," he noted.

Yet that comeback restored the confidence of the Iraqi security forces after their shock loss of Mosul to IS in 2014.

Mattis stressed that retaking Mosul would not have happened "without... Abadi's steady hand" but also thanks to extensive US support.

The future of that support still must be settled, and there would be resistance from Shiite militia and Iranians, said Nicholas Heras, Middle East Security Fellow at the Center for a New American Security in Washington.

Mattis will also meet in Arbil with Massud Barzani, president of the Iraqi Kurdistan region.

Mattis had said his discussions in Iraq would focus on the way ahead, including how to keep the country from again politically fragmenting or falling further under Iran's influence.

"Secretary Mattis is going to be very much focused on a pathway for the United States to continue to have to a residual force in Iraq to continue to train Iraqi security forces" and avoiding a successor from IS rising up, said Heras.

A key issue is Iraqi Kurdistan's plan for an independence referendum on September 25, strongly opposed by the US as an event that could undermine Abadi and distract from the fight against IS.

- Kurdistan referendum challenge -

"A referendum at this time would be potentially catastrophic to the counter-ISIS campaign," said Brett McGurk, the White House envoy to the anti-IS coalition.

"It's not just the United States; every member of our coalition believes that now is not the time to hold this referendum."

McGurk said the initial push on the outskirts of Tal Afar was "going well", with 235 square kilometres (90 square miles) cleared in the first 24 hours.

Iraqi and US forces were "moving faster, more effectively, more efficiently," he said, in part due to US President Donald Trump having given Mattis more authority to decide on tactics and resources needed.

Mattis, who is on a five-day swing through Jordan, Iraq, Turkey and Ukraine, said he would also talk about reconstruction and resettlement of hundreds of thousand of Iraqis driven from their homes and towns by the fighting, especially Mosul.

"It's not going to happen overnight. It's going to be a heavy lift for them going forward."

But Heras said Mattis, whom he said has earned firm trust among Iraqis, needs to help Abadi further build his power as a moderate for the post-war, with elections looming for next year.

"That will be a political pickle that Mattis will have to work Abadi through," he said.

For Mattis's meeting with Barzani, Heras added: "All signs point to it being one of those tough-love talks."

IRAQ WARS
Iraq begins battle to retake Tal Afar, IS bastion near Mosul: PM
Baghdad (AFP) Aug 20, 2017
Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi announced early Sunday the start of a battle to retake Tal Afar, a key Northern Iraqi bastion of the Islamic State (IS) group and one of their last remaining strongholds in the region. The announcement comes a month after the capture by Iraqi forces of second city Mosul further east in a major blow to the jihadists. In a televised speech, Abadi, dress ... read more

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