By Yeganeh Torbati
BAGHDAD, July 11 – U.S. forces will move advisers and other staff to an Iraqi airfield recaptured from Daesh to help locals organise a push on Mosul, the militants’ largest stronghold, U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter said before arriving in Baghdad on Monday.
Iraqi government forces said on Saturday they took back control of Qayara airbase, about 60 km (40 miles) from the northern city, 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 southern-most envelopment of Mosul,” he added.
The recapture of Mosul, on major supply roads running further north to the borders of Syria and Turkey, would be a major boost for the Iraqi government and U.S. plans to weaken the group which has launched and inspired attacks in the West.
Two years since Daesh seized wide swathes of Iraq and neighbouring Syria in a lightning offensive, the tide has begun to turn as an array of forces lined up against the militants have made inroads into their self-proclaimed “caliphate”.
The militants have increasingly resorted to insurgent-style attacks including a bombing in Baghdad last week that left nearly 300 people dead.
A senior U.S. defense official said Qayara would be “an important location for our advisers, for our fire support, working closely with the Iraqis and being closer to the fight.”
U.S. forces had already visited the airfield to check on its condition and advisers would be able to offer specialised engineering support in Mosul, where Daesh has blown up bridges across the Tigris River, U.S. officials said.
Iraqi forces were already improving the airfield’s perimeter in case of a counterattack from the nearby town of Qayara which Daesh still holds, another U.S. official in Baghdad said.
Daesh has suffered a number of territorial losses in recent months including the Syrian town of al-Shadadi, taken by U.S.-backed Syrian forces in February, and the Iraqi recapture of Ramadi in December and Falluja last month.
Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has promised to take Mosul by the end of the year.
U.S. officials said Carter would meet Abadi, Defense Minister Khaled al-Obaidi and U.S. Army Lieutenant General Sean MacFarland, the head of the U.S.-led coalition battling Daesh in Iraq and Syria.
Carter announced in April that the United States would send about 200 additional troops to Iraq, mostly as advisers for Iraqi troops as they advance towards Mosul, accompanying Iraqi units of about 2,500 troops.