In the latest distancing by Trump administration advisors from recent statements by the President, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis arrived in Baghdad on an unannounced visit on Monday to discuss the war effort against ISIS, and said that the US military is not in Iraq "to seize anybody’s oil."
Speaking to a small group of reporters traveling with him, Mattis was quoted by Reuters as saying “I think all of us here in this room, all of us in America, have generally paid for our gas and oil all along and I’m sure that we will continue to do so in the future."
On his first trip to Iraq as Pentagon chief, Mattis is set to assess the war effort against the Islamic State as Iraqi forces launch a new push to evict ISIS militants from their remaining stronghold in the city of Mosul. In Iraq, 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 January: "We should have kept the oil. But okay. Maybe you'll have another chance."
Trump later clarified his position in an ABC interview. The president said ISIS would not have become a global threat if it hadn’t taken over Iraq’s oil industry when the country was left weakened by the war.
“We should’ve kept the oil when we got out. And, you know, it’s very interesting, had we taken the oil, you wouldn’t have ISIS, because they fuel themselves with the oil. That’s where they got the money. They got the money… when we left, we left Iraq, which wasn’t a government.
“We created a vacuum and ISIS formed. But had we taken the oil, something else very good would’ve happened. They would not have been able to fuel their rather unbelievable drive to destroy large portions of the world,” Trump noted, while adding that Iraq’s oil could have been beneficial for the United States too, as the country’s budget has been drained by involvement in Middle East wars.
Mattis, however, flatly ruled out any such intent. "We're not in Iraq to seize anybody's oil," he told reporters traveling with him, although one wonders if the Bush presidential dynasty would have a strongly differing opinion.
His 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 defense secretary.
The retired Marine general, who led American troops in Iraq, said he had sought an exemption from Trump's travel ban for Iraqis who served with U.S. 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 has also been more critical than Trump of Russian President Vladimir Putin, and distanced himself from Trump's labeling of the media as "the enemy of the American people," saying he had no problems with the press.
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Mattis' visit comes one 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. Last week, Iraqi aircraft dropped millions of leaflets in western Mosul, calling on residents to get ready to welcome the Iraqi troops, as the siege on the militants continues. The insurgents were forced out of the east of the city last month after 100 days of fighting.
In October, Iraqi forces, backed by the US-led international coalition, launched a campaign to retake Mosul. Last month the US-led coalition admitted to “unintentionally” killing at least 188 civilians in Syria and Iraq since 2014, when the airstrikes against Islamic State began. As of February 14, 2017, the US-led coalition had conducted a total of 18,250 strikes (11,102 Iraq / 7,148 Syria), the US Department of Defense reported.
The U.S. commander in Iraq, Army Lieutenant General Stephen Townsend, has said he believes U.S.-backed forces will recapture both of Islamic State's major strongholds - Mosul and the city of Raqqa in Syria - within the next six months. The defense secretary's strategy review could lead to additional deployment of U.S. forces, beyond the less than 6,000 American troops deployed to both Iraq and Syria today.
Experts say the Pentagon may also look at increasing the number of attack helicopters and air strikes and bringing in more artillery, as well as granting greater authority to battlefield commanders fighting Islamic State.
Meanwhile, as Reuters adds, the future for U.S. forces in Iraq, and for Iraq's fragmented society, is unclear once the hardline Sunni group has been expelled from Mosul. Mattis told the Senate last month that the top U.S. goal in Iraq should be "to ensure that it does not become a rump state of the regime in Tehran", which has close ties with the Shi'ite political elite ruling Iraq.
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.
Sadr on Monday said the government should demand the withdrawal of U.S. and allied forces after the battle of Mosul. "The Iraqi government has to demand that all occupying and so-called friendly forces leave Iraq in order to preserve the prestige and the sovereignty of the state," he said. Sadr's 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.
With Mattis' star status in the international arena rapidly rising, and threatening to soon eclipse that of his boss, it is unclear if Trump will be content to hand over the reigns of foreign policy to his defense secretary even as Rex Tillerson seemingly struggles to decide if he is part of the Trump/Bannon or Pence/Mattis axis, or if Trump will seek to pressure the views of retired Marine Corps general into converging with his own.