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Pentagon Chief Ash Carter Makes Unannounced Trip To Baghdad


As time runs out on the Obama administration, President Obama's defense secretary, Ash Carter, has spent the past week making final visits to U.S. forces in Afghanistan and Iraq. And his message has been that the United States can be counted on now and after Donald Trump takes office. NPR's David Welna is traveling with Carter and joins us on the line. David, good morning.

DAVID WELNA, BYLINE: Good morning, David.

GREENE: So yesterday, it sounds like you were pretty close to Mosul in Iraq, where the United States is helping Iraqi forces try to take this city from - from ISIS. I mean, tell us - tell us about the secretary's visit there.

WELNA: Sure. Secretary Carter went to an airbase that was originally built by the U.S. that's just 35 miles south of Mosul. It was his first visit there. It's a place that the Islamic State seized from Iraq a couple of years back, and it was only reclaimed about four months ago. The Islamic State, before they abandoned the base, blew up a good part of the airfield. And after trucking in about 2 million pounds of cement mix, the airstrip became usable only in October.

And it's now the main staging base for the assault on the Islamic State fighters, who are still holding most of Mosul. It's also sort of emblematic of President Obama's military doctrine of using what they call force multipliers. About 800 U.S. troops are there to advise the Iraqi forces, who are doing most of the fighting. Carter thanked those troops as he toured the so-called Qayyarah West airbase yesterday.


SEC OF DEFENSE ASH CARTER: From a dot on a map many months ago to a real place right now that's really functioning, it's incredibly impressive. But it's necessary because we have to destroy ISIL here because we have to destroy it where it started. Of course, we'll destroy it everywhere else it may spread also, but we have to destroy it here. We have to destroy the idea and the fact that there could be an Islamic State based on this ideology.

WELNA: Carter added that he is confident that the Islamic State will be destroyed but that the Iraqis won't be able to do it without help from the U.S.

GREENE: Well, I mean, a tough talk there about destroying ISIS, but how is it going?

WELNA: Well, according to U.S. officials, things are going largely according to plan, with Iraqi forces making what they call incremental progress. They say about a third of the part of Mosul that's east of the Euphrates River, which divides the city, has now been liberated. And they're pleased that Iraqi forces have begun attacking from different points simultaneously, which is - that forces the defenders to defend against different fronts at the same time. But Colonel John Dorrian, who's the U.S. military spokesman in Iraq, acknowledged when I talked with him that recovering Mosul still presents a huge challenge.

JOHN DORRIAN: It's very, very tough and dangerous fighting in the eastern side of the city. The Iraqi counterterrorism service is moving into districts and liberating them, but it's very slow-going and very dangerous fighting because the enemy is using vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices and human shields and booby traps. And it's just very difficult and challenging fighting.

WELNA: And another important point is that most of Mosul's population lives on the west side of the Euphrates, so it presents an even greater challenge since a lot of the people there have not been allowed to leave.

GREENE: OK, and, David, I know Ash Carter - the defense secretary's farewell tour has now taken him to Israel, where you're joining us this morning. What's on his agenda there?

WELNA: Well, the main centerpiece of this visit is the delivery today of two F-35 Joint Strike Fighter jets. The U.S. has been giving Israel about $3 billion a year in military aid, most of which is spent buying U.S. armaments. And after the U.S. agreed to raise that amount to $3.8 billion for the next decade, Israel ordered another 17 of the F-35s, significantly after the election of Donald Trump for president. And the government here, headed by Benjamin Netanyahu, is said to be very excited about Trump coming. And this was a sign that their confidence, I guess, in their relationship with the U.S. is rising.

GREENE: OK, NPR's David Welna traveling with Defense Secretary Ash Carter, speaking to us from Israel. David, thanks.

WELNA: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Welna is NPR's national security correspondent.
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