US delegation in Kurdistan as Mosul offensive appears to inch forward

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ERBIL, Kurdistan Region – A delegation from the US State Department arrived in Erbil on Thursday to discuss the war against Islamic State (ISIS), as Washington has upped its humanitarian aid for displaced persons who are expected to flee Mosul ahead of an upcoming operation to liberate that key city.

The increased aid and US visits – including Thursday’s arrival of the State Department’s Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken, may indicate that the offensive to free Mosul could begin soon.

“We are now in a position where ISIL (ISIS) here in Iraq is increasingly on the run and on the ropes, and the urgent work ahead is to complete that effort. And Mosul, of course, is the big piece ahead of Iraq and ahead of us,” Blinken told reporters in Baghdad on Wednesday.

He is joined on his visits to Baghdad and Erbil by US President Barack Obama’s special presidential envoy to the US-led coalition against ISIS, Brett McGurk, the Deputy Assistance Secretary for Near Eastern Affairs, Joseph Pennington, US Ambassador Douglas A. Silliman and the commander of US forces in Iraq, Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend.

In Erbil, the US delegation will meet with Kurdistan Region’s President Masoud Barzani and other Kurdish officials, to discuss the war against ISIS and humanitarian issues, especially the internally displaced persons (IDPs) crisis.

The US supports both Baghdad and Erbil in the war against ISIS. It has provided Baghdad with at least $1.6 billion in arms and training since ISIS overran Mosul back in June 2014. Unlike Germany – another key ally in the anti-ISIS coalition -- the US does not arm the Kurds directly. Instead, the Pentagon sends arms to Kurdistan through the central government in Baghdad, in accordance with its One Iraq policy.

In July, the US reached a memorandum of understanding with Erbil to provide the Kurdistan Region with $415 million to pay the salaries of Kurdish Peshmerga forces, who have not received their full salaries for months, as a result of the financial crisis afflicting Kurdistan. The US has also helped train Peshmerga soldiers.

This week, Washington is also giving Iraq another $181 million in humanitarian aid to help it prepare for the aftermath of the Mosul operation, when up to one-million people could be displaced, according to UN estimates.

Many of them are expected to pour into the Kurdistan Region, where authorities are making preparations to facilitate the inflow of up to 500,000 of them. The inflow will be in addition to the 1.8 million IDPs and refugees hosted by Kurdistan.

The US delegation’s visit comes shortly after Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi reiterated his promise to force ISIS from Mosul by the end of 2016, and in doing so destroy their caliphate – since it was in Mosul back in June 2014 that ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared the establishment of that state.

In late August General Joseph Votel, the head of the US Central Command (CENTCOM), told a press conference that this is achievable.

“It’s the (Iraqi) prime minister’s objective to have that done by the end of the year,” Votel said. “My assessment is that we can meet … the prime minister’s objectives, if that’s what he chooses to do.”

The US delegation’s visit also comes as France, the first country to join the US air campaign against ISIS, is stepping up its support of Iraqi and Kurdish forces by sending its aircraft carrier to the Persian Gulf, increasing the number of airstrikes it is carrying out against ISIS – in both Iraq and Syria – and also bringing artillery to the front-line with Mosul, to give fire support to these forces.

That is another indication that the operation to free Mosul may start soon.

Since the beginning of the war, France has stressed that arming and supporting the Kurds is essential for defeating ISIS. Also, on President Barzani’s visit to Paris this month the French said they will continue to support the Kurds with arms.

On the ground, Iraqi forces managed to capture the oil-town of Qayyara, about 60 kilometers south of Mosul, from the militants last month. Kurdish Peshmerga forces also made advances against ISIS last month and in some areas have forces a mere seven kilometers from Mosul.