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Seizure of key air base near Mosul raises prospect of US escalation against ISIS

July 11,2016 12:09

Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter arrived Monday in Iraq to meet with senior U.S. military commanders and Iraqi officials, and said that Qayyarah Air Base will serve as a logistics and air hub on which both Iraqi and U.S. troops will operate. On ...and more »

Iraqi government forces drive a tank on June 22, 25 miles west of Qayyarah, where they seized control of an airfield July 9. (Mahmud Saleh/Agence France-Presse via Getty Images) BAGHDAD — The seizure of a key militant-held air base near the Iraqi city of Mosul moves Iraqi security forces closer to attempting to take it back from the Islamic State, and raises the prospect of the Pentagon escalating its military presence in northern Iraq in coming days. Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter arrived Monday in Iraq to meet with senior U.S. military commanders and Iraqi officials, and said that Qayyarah Air Base will serve as a logistics and air hub on which both Iraqi and U.S. troops will operate. On Sunday, a “small number” of troops from the U.S.-led cooperate arrived and carried out a “brief site survey,” a senior U.S. military official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss recent operations. Carter told reporters traveling with him Sunday that the seizure is part of creating a “pincer” that captures Mosul between Iraqi security forces traveling from the south and peshmerga forces maneuvering from the north. The United States already had established in March one staging base southeast of Mosul, in Makhmour, but Qayyarah Air Base will provide another foothold, the Pentagon chief said. [These photos show how the Marines are using their new fire base in Iraq against ISIS] The base at Qayyarah, about 25 miles south of Mosul and west of the Tigris River, also is significantly larger. Known to U.S. troops as Qayyarah Airfield West during the Iraq War, it includes two runways long enough to fly heavy cargo planes and room to fly numerous helicopters. It served as the site of a U.S. brigade headquarters known as Forward Operating Base Endurance during the last war. One senior U.S. defense official traveling with Carter compared Qayyarah’s potential role to that of Al Taqqadum, a sprawling base in Anbar province where Marines and other Americans train Iraqis. It served a key role in the liberation of the cities of Ramadi in December and Fallujah more recently. A member of the Iraqi government forces inspects a wreckage on the side of a road on June 22, about 25 miles west of Qayyarah, during their operation to take the city and make it a launchpad for Mosul. (Mahmud Saleh/Agence France-Presse via Getty Images) “We’ve got to get into Qayyarah, we’ve got to understand what’s there, we’ve got to have the Iraqis set up a perimeter,” the official said. “We’re just getting our feet on the ground there, but if Taqqadum is a nice example of what to compare it to, you can see a situation where weeks and months out, you are doing new missions and projecting from that location.” U.S. officials described the Iraqi operation that took back Qayyarah as their largest armored operation since Saddam Hussein’s forces invaded Kuwait in 1990. It included one battalion from the Iraqi army’s 9th Armored Division, three battalions from Iraq’s counterterrorism forces and the 92nd Brigade of the Iraqi army’s 15th division, a senior Iraqi army commander said. The commander, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he said Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s office issued orders not to speak to the media, said that their advance on the base began Saturday morning, and that they controlled the installation by midday. [U.S. approves additional troops, artillery systems and helicopter gunships for Iraq fight] The commander said there was “not much” resistance from the Islamic State because of airstrikes from the U.S.-led coalition and fire support from U.S. rockets known as HIMARS, short for High Mobility Artillery Rocket System. “Coalition forces destroyed everything and then we advanced,” he said. Lt. Gen. Abdel Ghani al-Asadi, commander of Iraq’s counterterrorism forces, said that the Americans played a “significant role” in the battle. Some U.S. advisers based at Camp Speicher, about 100 miles south in Tikrit left their base and drove to “secure areas” closer to the front lines in three or four vehicles in order to maintain better communications with Iraqi forces. Asadi, who participated in the Kuwait invasion, said the armored component was “not at that level” but was the largest used in the fight against Islamic State. More than 50 tanks took part, he said. The armored component was more significant than in other operations because of the open geography of the area, he said. Coalition airstrikes eliminated 60 Islamic State car bombs as Iraqi forces moved north from Baiji, “but they were all destroyed far away from our forces.” “Now all Qayyarah Air Base is under our control, but there’s nothing left of it,” he said. He said that the militants, rather than coalition strikes, had destroyed the infrastructure of the base. A brief video clip taken near the base and widely distributed on social media Sunday showed armored vehicles snaking through a desert as dark plumes of smoke rise in the background. It appears to have been taken from a helicopter. A U.S. military official in Baghdad confirmed Monday it is legitimate. Brig. Gen. Yahya Rasoul, an Iraqi military spokesman, said that military engineers will start rebuilding in the next few days so that the base can accommodate Iraqi aircraft. He raised the possibility that coalition forces also could use it to launch airstrikes against targets in Mosul, although it was not clear that will be the case. Abadi said in a tweet Saturday that he and “heroes” from the counterterrorism service called in a meeting for the people of Nineveh province to “prepare for liberation of their cities” following the securing of the air base. U.S. officials raised the possibility ahead of Carter’s arrival Monday of American military advisers working alongside Iraqi troops at lower levels than they have been to prepare for operations in Mosul. Currently, they are approved to advise at the brigade and battalion levels, but have stayed at higher levels with more senior commanders serving at the division levels of leadership. Carter, asked Sunday whether it is possible that more U.S. troops could deploy, acknowledged that it is a possibility. “We will provide more if and when the Iraqi security forces can make good use of them, and if Prime Minister Abadi requests them,” he said. “So, I will be discussing that.” Carter also did not rule out that Lt. Gen. Sean MacFarland, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, could temporarily base additional forces in Iraq that do not count against troop limits set in the United States — something that occurred in March as the Marines set up a fire base southeast of Mosul at Makhmour. That was disclosed after a Marine in the unit, Staff Sgt. Louis Cardin, was killed by an Islamic State-fired rocket. “There are and have always been people doing temporary things on temporary duty, deployed from other units,” Carter said. “General MacFarland had the authority to do those movements, and they’re routine and very varied, and the number goes up and down.” The number of troops approved is presently about 3,870. After Cardin’s death, however, Pentagon officials quietly acknowledged in March that the actual number serving in Iraq was above 5,000 when counting service members who deployed for assignments considered temporary. Morris reported from Beirut. Mustafa Salim in Baghdad contributed to this report.

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