De­fense chief heads to Mid­dle East, Africa in meet­ing with al­lies.

Known to sur­prise U.S. troops serv­ing in Iraq, Afghanistan

The Washington Times Daily - - FRONT PAGE - BY CARLO MUNOZ

De­fense Sec­re­tary James Mattis is en route to the Mid­dle East and North Africa for a se­ries of meet­ings with key al­lies dur­ing a week­long trip that comes as an Amer­i­can-backed of­fen­sive against the Is­lamic State group in Syria heats up and Iraqi forces bat­tling for con­trol of the group’s strong­hold in Mo­sul have bogged down into bru­tal street-by-street fight­ing in the city’s an­cient district.

Al­though the de­fense sec­re­tary’s of­fi­cial agenda does not list vis­its to Iraq, Syria or Afghanistan, the for­mer U.S. Cen­tral Com­mand chief has reg­u­larly made unan­nounced stops in Baghdad and Kabul to visit Amer­i­can and coali­tion forces sta­tioned there.

The Pen­tagon chief’s re­gional visit will be­gin with high-level meet­ings with coun­ter­parts in Saudi Ara­bia, where Mr. Mattis will look to se­cure com­mit­ments from Riyadh “to strengthen … the U.S.-Saudi se­cu­rity part­ner­ship,” ac­cord­ing to the Pen­tagon.

A Saudi-led mil­i­tary coali­tion is bat­tling Ira­nian-backed Houthi tribal mili­ti­a­men in Ye­men as part of the on­go­ing civil war there. U.S. forces re­main fo­cused on an aerial cam­paign tar­get­ing el­e­ments of al Qaeda’s Ye­meni cell, known as al Qaeda in the Ara­bian Penin­sula.

Mr. Mattis will then head to Egypt “to dis­cuss re­gional se­cu­rity is­sues” with top mil­i­tary lead­ers un­der Pres­i­dent Ab­delFat­tah el-Sissi’s regime.

The visit was planned days after the Is­lamic State claimed re­spon­si­bil­ity for dual sui­cide at­tacks against Cop­tic Christian churches dur­ing Palm Sun­day ser­vices.

The ter­ror­ist group’s oper­a­tives based in the Si­nai Penin­sula have rou­tinely at­tacked Egyp­tian mil­i­tary and po­lice tar­gets, forc­ing the el-Sissi regime to im­pose a state of emer­gency across the coun­try.

The for­mer four-star Marine Corps gen­eral will round out his visit with top-level meet­ings in Is­rael, the United Arab Emi­rates and Dji­bouti.

Mr. Mattis will make his fi­nal stop in Dji­bouti, Wash­ing­ton’s best-known coun­tert­er­ror­ism hub in North Africa.

Pres­i­dent Trump or­dered an es­ca­la­tion in op­er­a­tions against the So­ma­l­ibased ter­ror­ist group al-Shabab, but the re­gional fight against the Is­lamic State will likely top the agenda in most, if not all, of Mr. Mattis’ stops.

Fight­ing has in­ten­si­fied on both fronts in Syria and Iraq. U.S. and coali­tion forces re­port­edly launched an air as­sault with mem­bers of the Syr­ian Demo­cratic Force, or SDF, the group of Arab and Kur­dish mili­tias bat­tling the Is­lamic State in the coun­try, against the group’s po­si­tions near Deir-i-Zour.

Tar­get­ing Is­lamic State weapons de­pots in the east­ern sub­urbs of the city, U.S. he­li­copters dropped SDF fight­ers early Mon­day, ac­cord­ing to re­gional re­ports. It was the se­cond such op­er­a­tion ex­e­cuted by Syr­ian forces in as many months.

Pen­tagon of­fi­cials say Is­lamic State lead­ers, in­clud­ing leader Abu Bakr alBagh­dadi, have be­gun to flee Raqqa for the safe havens in Deir-i-Zour. The south­ern Syr­ian city could be the jump­ing-off point for a mass ex­o­dus by the Is­lamic State from Syria as coali­tion forces con­tinue to tighten the noose around Raqqa. In Mo­sul, U.S.-backed forces con­tinue to grind their way through the western part of the city as the Iraqi of­fen­sive to re­take the group’s Iraqi cap­i­tal en­ters its sixth month.

The bat­tle in western Mo­sul has been a bloody af­fair de­fined by some of the tough­est ur­ban com­bat seen by U.S.backed Iraqi forces since the of­fen­sive be­gan in Oc­to­ber.

Iraqi and coali­tion ad­vis­ers are clos­ing in on the old city district, which is home to the Grand Nuri Mosque. The mosque is where al-Bagh­dadi in­fa­mously an­nounced the group’s Is­lamic “caliphate” after over­run­ning much of Syria and most of north­ern Iraq in a blis­ter­ing cam­paign in 2014.

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