As coalition forces begin their push into western Mosul, Defense Secretary James Mattis paid an unannounced visit to Iraq. Undoubtedly, Mattis’ presence is intended to facilitate the coordination necessary to drive ISIS out of its last remaining significant position in Iraq. Mattis also mended a few fences, expressly telling the Iraqis that the US has no intention of grabbing their oil as payback for our efforts, as the Washington Post and CNN both report:
Defense Secretary Jim Mattis made his first trip to Iraq as Pentagon chief on Monday to determine what is needed to accelerate the campaign against the Islamic State, hours after rejecting a suggestion by President Trump that the United States might take Iraq’s oil.
“I think all of us here in this room — all of us in America — have generally paid for our gas and oil all along, and I am sure we will continue to do so in the future,” Mattis said during a meeting with reporters Sunday night. “We’re not in Iraq to seize anybody’s oil.”
Mattis’s rejection of the idea came after repeated claims by Trump that the United States should have taken Iraq’s oil during the Iraq War. Trump suggested last month that “maybe we’ll get another chance” to do so during a visit to the Central Intelligence Agency, generating new concerns about his position.
It seems doubtful at best that anyone took that seriously. We have somewhere between five and six thousand troops in Iraq at the moment, almost all of which are focused on anti-ISIS operations in the northern end of the country. Even if we wanted to seize the oil — which we do not — we wouldn’t have enough troops to hold those facilities against Iraqi opposition. We also lack the facilities to ship it out, most of which are on the other end of Iraq in the predominantly Shi’ite region. To the Iraqis, that claim would sound like a boastful and disrespectful joke, not a serious threat.
The Iraqis probably have more concrete concerns about US staying power in the fight against ISIS, and the restriction on visas for Iraqis as part of Trump’s immigration EO. Trump’s repeated emphasis on destroying ISIS on a faster timeframe will probably allay some of the former; the issue might be Iraq’s staying power after they retake western Mosul. Most of the fight will shift into Syria at that point, and Iraq may be less than enthusiastic about allowing the US to operate from Iraqi bases against Raqqa and other remnants across the border. Mattis might be focusing on the post-Mosul strategy to make sure we still have a partner on the other side of that line.
It will be a few months before we get to that point, however. The assault on western Mosul began yesterday, and it has well over half a million civilians trapped between ISIS and the coalition:
Iraqi forces have launched a long-awaited offensive to retake west Mosul, making cautious advances towards the city’s airport ahead of a push into heavily populated residential areas, where up to 3,000 Islamic State fighters have vowed to defend their last urban stronghold in Iraq.
An estimated 650,000 civilians are trapped in the west of the city, and the UN said on Sunday that many people were “at extreme risk”, with fuel and food supplies dwindling and drinking water and electricity scarce.
Plumes of smoke were seen as US airstrikes supported the early advance, which met limited resistance as forces probed areas of south and south-west Mosul. More dogged clashes are expected when troops near the urban centre, which is known to have been fortified by members of Isis’s elite fighting units.
The coalition believes that senior ISIS terror commanders have already bugged out of Mosul for either the Anbar desert or Raqqa. Still, they have had almost three years to dig themselves into the urban landscape, and it will take a bloody step-by-step battle to dig them out. It could be spring or even early summer before the entirety of Mosul is back in Iraqi hands. Mattis will have his hands full during that period in helping to keep the coalition together, let alone prepare it for what comes next.