The U.S. defense secretary gave an upbeat assessment of the ongoing operation to retake the Iraqi city of Mosul from Islamic State militants, as he traveled to Baghdad for talks with top Iraqi officials.
Ash Carter’s announced visit October 22 came five days after Iraqi security forces, along with Kurdish and Shi’ite militia units and backing from U.S. military advisers and aircraft, launched their assault to capture Iraq’s third-largest city.
After meetings with Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi, Carter said he was encouraged by the campaign so far and was in discussions not just about potential future roles for U.S. troops.
"Now that isn't a defense mission or an Iraqi army mission, but it's a critical part of winning the peace," Carter told reporters.
The visit comes on the heels of meetings Carter had with Turkish leaders in Ankara on October 20 when he announced "an agreement in principle" for Turkey to play a role in the battle for Mosul.
Carter’s third visit to Iraq this year also came two days after a U.S. soldier was killed by an improvised explosive device in northern Iraq.
The soldier was among about 100 U.S. troops embedded with Iraqi and Kurdish Peshmerga forces that are helping to guide U.S.-led coalition air strikes.
The fall of Mosul, a city of some 1.5 million people, would be a psychological victory for the Abadi government, which has struggled to cope with the Islamic State threat.
The government’s inability to keep the militants from seizing vast territories in the north and east led to Washington’s decision to step up its involvement in the fight.
Some observers have warned that recapturing Mosul could lead to land grabs and sectarian bloodletting between Sunnis and Shi'a.
The United Nations has said Mosul could require the biggest humanitarian relief operation in the world, with worst-case scenario forecasts of up to 1 million people being uprooted.
The top U.S. commander in Iraq, Lieutenant General Stephen Townsend, said resistance had stiffened in recent days as forces approached Mosul.
"It's pretty significant. We're talking enemy indirect fire...even some antitank guided missiles. So it's been very tough fighting. Snipers. Machine guns," Townsend was quoted as saying.
Roughly 5,000 U.S. personnel are in Iraq, including the more than 100 embedded with Iraqi and Peshmerga forces involved with the Mosul offensive.