WASHINGTON — In the final debate between presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, the GOP nominee assailed the US-backed Iraqi military operation to retake the city of Mosul, alleging domestic political motives in Washington for freeing the city from Islamic State rule.
Trump told moderator Chris Wallace that the Obama administration is supporting the offensive to bolster Clinton’s campaign and argued that reclaiming the northern Iraqi city — which has been held under brutal Islamic State control for two years — would lead to Iran gaining more power in the region.
“The only reason they did it is because she is running for the office of president, and they want to look tough,” Trump said. “They want to look good.”
Calling the nuclear pact with Iran the “stupidest deal of all time,” Trump also claimed the mission to free Mosul would help Tehran.
“Iran, as I said many years ago, Iran is taking over Iraq. Something they’ve wanted to do forever,” he said. “But we’ve made it so easy for them. So we’re now going to take Mosul. And you know who is going to be the beneficiary? Iran.”
The Mosul comments came amid a debate mostly characterized by mud-slinging between the candidates, and an extraordinary refusal by Trump to commit to honoring the election results should he lose.
The operation to oust the Islamic State from Mosul has been in the works for almost as long as Trump and Clinton have been stumping for votes before the November 8 election. On Monday, Iraqi troops, backed by the US, kicked off the offensive, pushing toward the militant group’s largest stronghold in the country.
Clinton, who has been accused by Trump of fostering the rise of the Islamic State with missteps in the Middle East while she served as secretary of state, said she supported the mission.
“I am hopeful that the hard work that American military advisers have done will pay off, and that we will see a really successful military operation,” she stated. “But we know we’ve got lots of work to do. Syria will remain a hotbed of terrorism as long as the civil war, aided and abetted by the Iranians and the Russians, continue.”
Three days ago, in a nationally televised announcement, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi commenced the start of the push to dislodge the Sunni fundamentalists from Iraq’s second-largest city.
Reclaiming Mosul is seen as an essential development to weaken the extremist group, which has lately suffered a series of territorial losses that have diminished the reach of its self-declared caliphate.
The ground offensive comprises a diverse coalition of Iraqi forces, who are aided by Kurdish peshmerga forces.
Iranian-backed Shiite militias are also engaged in the fight near Mosul. They have have provided advice and other assistance, including funding for various militias fighting IS in Iraq. Qassem Soleimani, the commander of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards foreign operations wing, has been repeatedly pictured in Iraq during the war.
On Sunday, The Observer reported that Tehran was working to use Iranian forces to help liberate the Iraqi city and later establish a corridor between Iran and the Mediterranean. One of Trump’s biggest backers, retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, emphasized this week the potential Iranian benefits from the fall of Mosul.
In the debate, the real estate mogul also criticized the public deliberations about initiating the Mosul campaign and the US supporting it, which he suggested would tip off the enemy. “Whatever happened to the element of surprise? Okay?” he asked.
“We announce we’re going after Mosul. I’ve been reading about going after Mosul now for how long? Three months? These people have all left. They’ve all left. The element of surprise. Douglas MacArthur, George Patton spinning in their graves when they see the stupidity of our country,” he said, reprising past comments he has made about publicizing plans for attacking the jihadists.
While the broad national security and intelligence community has insisted the reclamation of Mosul is necessary in the fight against Islamic State, many have voiced concerns about what happens the day after.
The US has strongly offered its support, however, for the effort to free the city. “The United States and the rest of the international coalition stand ready to support Iraqi Security Forces, peshmerga fighters and the people of Iraq in the difficult fight ahead,” Defense Secretary Ashton Carter said recently.
“We are confident our Iraqi partners will prevail against our common enemy and free Mosul and the rest of Iraq from [Islamic State’s] hatred and brutality,” he added.
AFP contributed to this report.