BAGHDAD, IRAQ - Lt. Gen. Sean MacFarland, commander of the US-led coalition in Iraq.
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BAGHDAD, IRAQ - Lt. Gen. Sean MacFarland, commander of the US-led coalition in Iraq.

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The small town of Rutbah has strategic value

CNN is traveling with U.S. military leaders in the Middle East

Baghdad, Iraq CNN —  

U.S. Military officials Friday pointed to a key victory over ISIS in Iraq but acknowledged the bigger battles against the terror group are still to come.

Iraqi forces have declared the key town of Rutbah “secure” from ISIS, a conclusion that the United States agrees with, according to spokesman Col. Steve Warren of the U.S.-led coalition.

The small southwestern town in Anbar province has important strategic value because it sits on the main road connecting Iraq to Jordan. Before the war, it was estimated that $1 billion in commerce flowed on that road annually.

But for the last couple of years, ISIS had used Rutbah as a staging area to position fighters and weapons.

CNN is the only television network traveling with Centcom Commander Gen. Joseph Votel in the Middle East. Votel was in Iraq Friday to meet with U.S. military commanders to assess the progress in the war against ISIS.

While U.S. military officials described the retaking of Rutbah as an important win for the Iraqi forces, the military campaign against ISIS in Iraq and Syria is changing, according to a top U.S. military commander.

“Now the focus of the campaign is shifting more toward taking back the enemies’ centers of gravity in Iraq and Syria, Mosul and Raqqa,” Army Lt. Gen. Sean MacFarland, head of Operation Inherent Resolve, said Friday.

MacFarland, who spoke in Baghdad, declined to predict when the final assault on Mosul, an ISIS stronghold, will take place.

“I am really reluctant to make predictions,” he said. “We are trying really hard to make that happen.”

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MacFarland said the Iraqi forces the U.S. has worked with have proven to be “resilient and effective.”

“I don’t know how long this campaign is going to last. But we have to do it in a way that the local security forces either in Iraq or our partners in Syria can sustain. We don’t want to rush them out there and achieve fragile victories. We want to make sure their victories are irreversible.”

As the U.S. continues to train Iraqi forces for the battle of Mosul, MacFarland said the standard is “they have to be better than the enemy.”

He acknowledged the challenge will be ensuring that Iraqi forces, as well as local militias and Kurds, can hold onto Mosul once ISIS is pushed out.