U.S. and coalition forces will use the recaptured air base in Qayara as a staging hub, as Iraqi security forces move forward in the long-awaited battle to recapture Mosul from ISIS militants, Defense Secretary Ash Carter said Monday as he made an unannounced visit to Iraq.
The Qayarah airbase, which Prime Minister Haider Abadi announced Saturday had been retaken, is located 60 kilometers south of Mosul and can serve as a launchpad for future operations to recapture the city.
Carter, who landed in Baghdad on an unannounced visit, said U.S. advisers are prepared to accompany Iraqi battalions if needed, as those units begin to encircle the key northern city.
A senior defense official said it’s not clear when U.S. advisers would begin accompanying the battalions closer to the battlefront. But it could be in the coming weeks and months. The U.S. officials said a team of American troops went into Qayara for a quick site assessment Sunday and left.
One job they could do would be to help the Iraqis troops use highly technical bridging capabilities to get across the river into Mosul.
Carter laid out the U.S. vision for Qayara for the first time, describing its recapture as a key strategic victory. Speaking to reporters before he arrived in Baghdad, he said the air base will be one of the hubs from which “Iraqi Security Forces, accompanied and advised by us as needed, will complete the southern-most envelopment of Mosul. That’s its strategic role, and that’s its strategic importance.”
Carter compared the role of Qayara to how forces used the eastern city of Makhmour. There, U.S. troops set up a fire base for artillery to support advancing Iraqi units. Marine Staff Sgt. Louis F. Cardin was killed at the fire base in March in an ISIS rocket attack.
“The point of seizing that (Qayara) airfield is to be able to establish a logistics and air hub in the immediate vicinity of Mosul,” Carter told reporters. “So, there will be U.S. logistics support.”
President Barack Obama in April approved plans to allow U.S. troops to assist Iraqi forces at the brigade and battalion level, where they could be at greater risk, closer to the battle, but still behind the front lines. They had previously been limited to advising at the headquarters and division levels, which are further from the battle.