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Mattis Visits Iraq Amid Push to Rout Islamic State, Look Toward Future


FILE - U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis looks out over Kabul as he arrives at Resolute Support headquarters in Kabul, Afghanistan, April 24, 2017. Mattis is headed to Iraq to meet with Iraqi government leaders and U.S. commanders.

U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said on an unannounced visit to Iraq Tuesday that significant progress has been made in ousting Islamic State from the country.

"Cities have been liberated, people freed from ISIS," Mattis told reporters in Baghdad referring to the militant group. "They (IS militants) have been shown to be unable to stand up to our team in combat and they have not retaken one inch of ground that they've lost."

Before flying to Baghdad, where Mattis discussed security cooperation with Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, Mattis predicted IS' "days are numbered," while cautioning that the defeat of the militant group is not imminent. The Pentagon chief also cautioned that stabilizing Iraq is "not going to happen overnight."

U.S. support

U.S. State Department presidential envoy Brett McGurk, who accompanied Mattis to Iraq, reiterated that IS has "not reclaimed any ground," allowing 2
million Iraqi's to return to their homes in "liberated areas."

McGurk said U.N. humanitarian efforts and coalition political operations helped create "post-conflict phase" conditions in some areas.

"Our coalition operations and other operations have freed 5 million people now from the clutches of ISIS," he said.

U.S. forces have been leading a coalition of countries conducting airstrikes and other military operations in support of Iraq's military since August 2014, a few months after Islamic State fighters swept through large areas of northern and western Iraq. The Iraqi troops scored a major victory in July by recapturing control of Mosul, the nation's second largest city.

On Sunday, Iraq's military launched an offensive to take back Tal Afar, an area about 60 kilometers west of Mosul.

The U.S. coalition is also supporting efforts to expel Islamic State from areas it controls in neighboring Syria, including its de facto capital in the city of Raqqa.

Mattis said Tuesday a focus of the Syrian campaign will be in the middle Euphrates valley, an area of Islamic State control extending along the Euphrates River south of Raqqa from Der el-Zour down to the Iraqi border.

One challenge for Iraq's future will be avoiding the fragmentation between the country's Shi'ite, Sunni and Kurdish factions.

Mattis' meetings also include planned talks with Massoud Barzani, leader of Iraq's semi-autonomous Kurdish region where next month there is a referendum scheduled on independence from the government in Baghdad.

FILE - Iraq's Kurdistan region's President Massoud Barzani speaks during an interview with Reuters in Erbil, Iraq, July 6, 2017.
FILE - Iraq's Kurdistan region's President Massoud Barzani speaks during an interview with Reuters in Erbil, Iraq, July 6, 2017.

Brett McGurk, the U.S. envoy to the coalition, said this is not the time to undertake the vote.

"A referendum at this time would be potentially catastrophic to the counter-ISIS campaign," he said.