The US military is not in Iraq “to seize anybody’s oil”, Defence Secretary Jim Mattis said, distancing himself from remarks by President Donald Trump before arriving on an unannounced visit to Baghdad on Monday.
Mattis, on his first trip to Iraq as Pentagon chief, is hoping to get a first-hand assessment of the war effort as US-backed Iraqi forces launch a new push to evict Islamic State militants from their remaining stronghold in the city of Mosul.
But he is likely to face questions about Trump‘s remarks and actions, including a temporary ban on travel to the United States and for saying America should have seized Iraq‘s oil after toppling Saddam Hussein in 2003.
Trump told CIA staff in a January speech: “We should have kept the oil. But okay. Maybe you’ll have another chance.”
Mattis, however, flatly ruled out any such intent. “We’re not in Iraq to seize anybody’s oil,” he told reporters travelling with him.
Mattis’s remarks are the latest example of his policy differences with Trump. Trump has acknowledged that Mattis did not agree with him about the usefulness of torture as an interrogation tactic but, in a sign of Mattis’ influence, said he would defer the matter to his defence secretary.
Mattis has also taken a dimmer view of Russia and President Vladimir Putin than Trump, saying Moscow sought to break the NATO alliance. On Sunday, Mattis distanced himself from Trump‘s labelling of the media as “the enemy of the American people,” saying he had no problems with the press.
A retired Marine general who previously led American troops in Iraq, Mattis has also sought an exemption from Trump‘s travel ban for Iraqis who served with US troops, including translators.
He said he had not seen a new executive order which the administration is considering. “But I right now am assured that we will take steps to allow those who have fought alongside us, for example, to be allowed into the United States,” Mattis said.
Mattis, a retired Marine general wary of Iranian influence in Iraq, is finalising plans at Trump‘s request to accelerate the defeat of the militant group and is expected to meet senior US and Iraqi officials in Iraq.
The visit comes a day after Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi announced the start of the ground offensive on western Mosul, where Islamic State militants are essentially under siege, along with an estimated 650,000 civilians.
The insurgents were forced out of the eastern part of the city last month in the first phase of the offensive after 100 days of fighting.
The US commander in Iraq, Army Lieutenant General Stephen Townsend, has said he believes US-backed forces will recapture both of Islamic State’s major strongholds – Mosul and the city of Raqqa in Syria – within the next six months.
Mattis said he aimed to get an up-to-date assessment of the war during his visit to Iraq. His strategy review could lead to additional deployment of US forces, beyond the less than 6,000 American troops deployed to both Iraq and Syria today.
Experts say the Pentagon may also focus on other options, like increasing the number of attack helicopters and air strikes and bringing in more artillery. The military may also seek more authority to make battlefield decisions, allowing commanders to take advantage of opportunities more quickly.
The future for US forces in Iraq, and for Iraq‘s fragmented society, after the common enemy of Islamic State is expelled from Mosul is unclear.
Iran has close ties with the Shi’ite political elite ruling Iraq even as Washington provides critical military support to Iraqi forces battling Islamic State, a hardline Sunni group.
Mattis told the Senate last month that the top US goal in Iraq should be “to ensure that it does not become a rump state of the regime in Tehran”.
With the capture of Mosul in sight, a power struggle appears to be taking root between Iraq‘s Shi’ite leaders. Influential cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, who is openly hostile to Washington’s policies in the Middle East, has begun mobilizing supporters ahead of parliamentary and provincial elections.
His main rival is former prime minister Nuri al-Maliki, a pro-Iranian politician re-emerging as a possible kingmaker or even for a return to the premiership itself.