US Secretary of Defense James Mattis, on a whistlestop tour of Iraq, said the defeat of ISIS is now imminent and he is confident US-backed Iraqi forces will finish off fighters in their last remaining strongholds in the country.
“ISIS is on the run and they have been shown to be unable to stand up to our team, have not retaken one inch of ground,” he told reporters during a briefing in Bagdhad.
Mattis’s trip to Iraq coincided with an assault by Iraqi forces, backed by US coalition forces, on the last remaining city held by ISIS in northern Iraq, Tal Afar.
“A year ago the liberation of Mosul was just some ideas and lines in paper, the liberation of Raqqa was not even that,” said Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend, commander of the Combined Joint Task Force in Iraq.
“This week saw the start of Tal Afar after the hard-won victory in Mosul. We’ve seen our Iraqi partners quickly refit and transition their force into a new defensive in Tal Afar. In Syria we’re in our third month to defeat ISIS. Daesh’s defeat is inevitable. They are surrounded and cut off but their cruelty continues to shine through as they hide among women and children,” he said.
In response to a question regarding civil casualties in the military campaign against ISIS, Mattis said there was “no military in the world’s history that has paid more attention to limiting civilian casualties. Precision gave us options that we’ve never had before.”
Two Syrian monitoring groups claimed Tuesday that at least 37 civilians were killed as a result of airstrikes by the US-led coalition in Raqqa Monday night.
Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently, a network of local activists, said coalition airstrikes killed 37 civilians in the neighborhood of al-Sakhani.
The UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights put the number at 42, saying the airstrikes hit the al-Sakhani and Badu neighborhoods.
Syrian state media said Tuesday the coalition airstrikes killed 78 civilians in Raqqa in the previous 24 hours.
“The Coalition takes all allegations of civilian casualties seriously and assesses all credible allegations of possible civilian casualties. However, the recent allegations by the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights lack specificity and detail making it very difficult to properly assess,” the public affairs office of the Coalition Joint Task Force - Operation Inherent Resolve said in reply to CNN questions.
ISIS “violating every standard of decency”
“An enemy that hides behind women and children are showing who are the people violating every standard of decency and fills us with conviction [for] what we have to do about this enemy,” said Mattis.
“I’ve seen people fleeing to ISF (Iraqi security forces) and feeling safe when they get to them. That alone is more telling than anything there, you see people risking their lives getting from one side to another. We are the good guys and the innocent people in the battlefield know the difference.”
After briefing journalists, Mattis and Townsend left for the Kurdish-controlled Iraqi city of Erbil, where they were to meet with the President of the Iraqi Kurdistan region, Masoud Barzani.