The United States has deployed a special commando force to Iraq and is now setting its sights on wresting control of the Islamic State's (IS) power centers in Iraq and Syria, the U.S. defense secretary said.
After aiding Iraq's victory last month in regaining control of Ramadi, the capital of its western Anbar Province, the U.S. military now has a plan to build on that victory by helping Iraqi and Kurdish Peshmerga forces retake the northern city of Mosul, Iraq's second-largest, Ash Carter said on January 13.
The United States and coalition forces will also assist Syrian rebel forces in an effort to oust IS -- also known as ISIL or ISIS -- from Raqqa, which the militant group has proclaimed as the capital of its so-called caliphate, Carter said in an address to U.S. troops in Fort Campbell, Kentucky.
Raqqa and Mosul are IS's "military, political, economic, and ideological centers of gravity," he said. "That's why our campaign plan's map has got big arrows pointing at both Mosul and Raqqa. We will begin by collapsing ISIL's control over both of these cities, and then engage in elimination operations throughout other territories ISIL holds in Iraq and Syria."
Carter said he will meet in Paris next week with defense leaders from anti-IS coalition members France, Australia, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom, to recruit support for the fight.
"Each of these nations has a significant stake in completing the destruction of this evil organization, and we must include all of the capabilities they can bring to the field," he said.
In the campaign to retake Mosul, Carter described operations that would send Iraqi forces from the south and Peshmerga forces from the north to encircle and cut off IS fighters in Mosul.
But he warned that taking it back will not be quick or easy. The special commando force of about 200 U.S. soldiers will assist in recovering the territory, he said.
It "is preparing to work with the Iraqis to begin going after ISIL's fighters and commanders, killing or capturing them wherever we find them, along with other key targets," he said.
Carter's remarks came a day after President Barack Obama in his final State of the Union address repeated his belief that the United States must work with local forces in Iraq and Syria to have lasting success in the battle against IS.
Obama, taking aim at his Republican critics, cautioned against "Americanizing" the conflicts because that would allow extremists to accuse the West of occupying hallowed Muslim lands in the Middle East.
"Over-the-top claims that this is World War III just play into their hands," the president said, referring to statements by GOP presidential candidates, even as he vowed once again to "hunt down, root out, and destroy" what he called "killers and fanatics."
"President Obama is committed to doing what it takes -- as opportunities arise, as we see what works, and as the enemy adapts -- until ISIL is delivered a lasting defeat," Carter said.
Carter was addressing soldiers from the 101st Airborne Division, 1,800 of whom will deploy to Iraq in coming months, largely to train Iraqi forces and Kurdish Peshmerga fighters.
With reporting by AP, Reuters, and AFP