U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis praises coalition efforts in Iraq and says ''we're going to continue to stand by the Iraqi army'' in their fight to defeat Islamic State militants. Rough Cut (no reporter narration).
ROUGH CUT (NO REPORTER NARRATION) STORY: New U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis praised coalition efforts in Iraq, Monday (February 20) during his first trip to the country as Pentagon chief. Mattis is finalizing plans at Trump's request to accelerate the defeat of Islamic State and is expected to meet senior U.S. and Iraqi officials in Iraq. "If we look at the future, we're going to continue to stand by the Iraqi army, the Iraqi people who are fighting this enemy," said Mattis. Mattis praised coalition efforts in Iraq as well as the Iraqi army itself. "What I specifically learned here is the resilience of this army," said Mattis. His visit comes a day after Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi announced the start of the ground offensive on western Mosul, where Islamic State militants are essentially under siege along with an estimated 650,000 civilians. The insurgents were forced out of the east of the city last month after 100 days of fighting. The U.S. commander in Iraq, Army Lieutenant General Stephen Townsend, has said he believes U.S.-backed forces will recapture both of Islamic State's major strongholds - Mosul and the city of Raqqa in Syria - within the next six months. The defense secretary's strategy review could lead to additional deployment of U.S. forces, beyond the less than 6,000 American troops deployed to both Iraq and Syria today. Experts say the Pentagon may also look at increasing the number of attack helicopters and air strikes and bringing in more artillery, as well as granting greater authority to battlefield commanders fighting Islamic State. The future for U.S. forces in Iraq, and for Iraq's fragmented society, is unclear once the hardline Sunni group has been expelled from Mosul. Mattis told the Senate last month that the top U.S. goal in Iraq should be "to ensure that it does not become a rump state of the regime in Tehran", which has close ties with the Shi'ite political elite ruling Iraq. A power struggle appears to be taking root between Iraq's Shi'ite leaders. Influential cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, who is openly hostile to Washington's policies in the Middle East, has begun mobilizing supporters ahead of parliamentary and provincial elections. Sadr on Monday said the government should demand the withdrawal of U.S. and allied forces after the battle of Mosul. "The Iraqi government has to demand that all occupying and so-called friendly forces leave Iraq in order to preserve the prestige and the sovereignty of the state," he said. Sadr's main rival is former prime minister Nuri al-Maliki, a pro-Iranian politician re-emerging as a possible kingmaker or even for a return to the premiership itself.