Defense Chief Carter: U.S. to Help Iraq Build Base for Push on Mosul

BAGHDAD (Reuters) -
U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter addresses top military and defense officials during the closing ceremony of the 11-day joint U.S.-Philippines military exercise dubbed "Balikatan 2016" (Shoulder-To-Shoulder 2016) Friday, April 15, 2016 at Camp Aguinaldo in suburban Quezon city, northeast of Manila, Philippines. Carter is visiting the aircraft carrier USS John C. Stennis sailing in the South China Sea Friday. (AP Photo/Bullit Marquez)
U.S. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter. (AP Photo/Bullit Marquez)

U.S. forces will help Iraq set up a logistics hub in a recaptured airfield to use for a push on Mosul, Islamic State’s largest stronghold, U.S. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter said before making an unannounced visit to Baghdad on Monday.

Iraqi government forces said they took back control of Qayara airbase, 40 miles south of Mosul, from the terror group on Saturday, backed by air cover from a U.S.-led military coalition.

“The seizure of the Qayara West airfield … will be followed. Its purpose is to create a logistics hub there, so there will be U.S. logistics support,” Carter told reporters.

The airfield is “one of the hubs from which … Iraqi security forces, accompanied and advised by us as needed, will complete the southernmost envelopment of Mosul,” he added.

A senior U.S. defense official compared the Qayara site to the Taqaddum airbase west of Baghdad, an operations center closer to the fighting in Anbar province from where American troops have advised Iraqi forces since 2015.

“The fight for Mosul … is the culminating battle, and so we need a strong location from which to project and to support the Iraqis,” the official said.

U.S. officials said Carter would meet Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi and Defense Minister Khaled al-Obaidi in Baghdad. He would also see U.S. Army Lieut. Gen. Sean MacFarland, the head of the U.S.-led coalition battling the Islamic State terror group, which swept through large swaths of Iraq and neighboring Syria two years ago.