US Defense Secretary Ash Carter arrived in Iraq Saturday to meet with his commanders and assess progress in the opening days of the operation to retake the northern city of Mosul from Islamic State militants.
His unannounced visit comes two days after a US service member was killed outside Mosul, underscoring the risk to American troops as they advise Iraqi forces.
And it comes on the heels of Carter announcing there “is an agreement in principle” for Turkey to help in the Mosul battle, and that friction between Turkey and Iraq can be worked out.
This is Carter’s third trip to Iraq this year, and he has overseen the steady increase in the number of US forces deployed and the growth of America’s effort to train and advise Iraqi troops.
Carter’s arrival came after a massive Islamic State assault on targets in and around the northern Iraqi city of Kirkuk came to an end Saturday after a day and night of heavy clashes, as Iraqi forces launched a new advance southeast of the IS-held city of Mosul.
Brig. Gen. Khattab Omer of the Kirkuk police said all the attackers were killed or blew themselves up. The area around the provincial headquarters, where the fighting was heaviest, was quiet Saturday morning.
It was not clear how many militants took part in the assault, which appeared to be aimed at diverting attention from Mosul, around 170 kilometers (100 miles) away, where Iraqi forces are waging a major offensive.
The attack killed at least 46 people, mostly members of the security forces, security and medical sources said Saturday.
“We have 46 dead and 133 wounded, most of them members of the security services, as result of the clashes with Daesh (IS),” an interior ministry brigadier general told AFP.
The toll was confirmed by a source at the Kirkuk health directorate. The brigadier general also said at least 25 jihadist attackers had been killed since the raid was launched early Friday.
The Iraqi army’s 9th Division meanwhile launched a new push to retake the town of Hamdaniyah, around 20 kilometers (12 miles) to the southeast of Mosul.
The Joint Military Operation Command said troops were advancing on the town, also known as Bakhdida and Qaraqosh.
Two army officers told The Associated Press that forces were advancing on the town from the north and south, with the support of U.S.-led coalition airstrikes. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to brief reporters.
The operation is part of an offensive launched Monday aimed at liberating Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, which fell to IS in 2014. It is the largest operation undertaken by Iraqi forces since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion and is expected to take weeks, if not months.
Hamdaniyah is believed to be largely uninhabited. IS has heavily mined the approaches to Mosul, and Iraqi forces have had to contend with roadside bombs, snipers and suicide truck bombs as they have moved closer to the city.
Iraqi forces retook the town of Bartella, around 15 kilometers (nine miles) east of Mosul, earlier this week, but are still facing pockets of resistance in the area.
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