Secretary of Defense Ash Carter is greeted in Baghdad by Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend, the commander of all U.S. Forces in Iraq and Syria. Carter is in Iraq to discuss the progress in the battle for Mosul and the plans for the city after it falls.

Secretary of Defense Ash Carter is greeted in Baghdad by Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend, the commander of all U.S. Forces in Iraq and Syria. Carter is in Iraq to discuss the progress in the battle for Mosul and the plans for the city after it falls. (Tara Copp/Stars and Stripes)

BAGHDAD, Iraq — Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi declined on Saturday a potential agreement between Baghdad and Ankara that would allow Turkish troops to participate in the fight for Mosul.

During a meeting with Secretary of Defense Ash Carter that addressed ongoing operations against the Islamic State group in Mosul and a possible post-conflict roles for the almost 5,000 U.S. forces there, al-Abadi told Carter that while Baghdad was interested in maintaining good relations with Ankara, it was not interested in having Turkey have a role in the campaign to liberate the city. The day before in a visit to Turkey Carter had said that Ankara had agreed in principle to having a role in Mosul that could potentially de-escalate tensions between the two countries.

On Saturday al-Abadi said “the Mosul battle is an Iraqi battle and the ones who are conducting it are Iraqis,”

“I know that the Turks want to participate, we tell them thank you, this is something the Iraqis will handle and the Iraqis will liberate Mosul and the rest of the territories,” he said.

If help is needed, “we will ask for it from Turkey or from other regional countries,” Abadi told Carter, according to pool reports from the meeting.

Carter also received an operational update from the top commander of U.S. forces in Iraq and Syria, Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend.

As he visited Baghdad, Iraq’s counterterrorism forces and its army advanced into the town of Qara Qosh, about 20 miles southeast of Mosul, and Kurdish forces reached their final forward line of advance, also about 20 miles east of Mosul, said a Baghdad-based U.S. military official who briefed reporters traveling with Carter. The Kurdish forces will hold the territory as Iraqi security forces begin to move into the city, the official said condition of anonymity.

The 18,000 Iraqi security forces and the estimated 10,000 Kurdish fighters have formed an arc around the northern, eastern and southern borders of Mosul. The Islamic State has an estimated 3,000 to 5,000 fighters inside the city and another 1,000 to 1,500 in the outskirts.

The terror group has responded with defenses intended to halt the forces’ forward progress, the official said. For example earlier this week the Islamic State group set fire to a sulfur plant near Qayarrah West, an airfield the U.S. has returned to and rebuilt in order to be able to provide Iraqi forces better logistical support during the Mosul fight. A wind shift resulted in the smoke from the sulfur fires floating over Mosul, which has caused some U.S. troops to wear their chemical protection masks, the official said.

On Friday, Islamic State fighters launched a surprise raid on the nearby city of Kirkuk in an action U.S. military officials said was an attempt to divert attention from the Mosul fight. The tactics “are not unexpected as we tighten the noose on Daesh,” the military official said, using a derogatory term for the Islamic State group.

The Associated Press reported Saturday that the assault on Kirkuk killed at least 80 people, mostly security forces.

Another primary focus of the meetings was how to avoid a post-battle humanitarian and governance crisis for the city’s million residents. The inhabitants of the Sunni-majority city have been under the Islamic State group’s rule since the city was captured in 2014.

Carter said U.S. forces are likely to have a role in Iraq beyond the fall of Mosul, training Iraqi forces in counter-insurgency and with stabilization efforts.

“We are discussing that with the Iraqi government,” Carter said to a U.S. servicemember who asked him about their post-Mosul role at a troop talk in Baghdad Saturday. “In the end the decision remains with the Iraqi government.”

Carter arrived in Baghdad two days after the death of the first U.S. servicemember involved in the Mosul offensive. Chief Petty Officer Jason C. Finan, 34, of Anaheim, Calif., was killed on Thursday north of Mosul. Finan, an explosive ordnance disposal expert, was embedded with Iraqi counterterrorism forces and died of injuries sustained when the armored vehicle in which he was riding hit a roadside bomb.

The advance on Mosul, launched Oct. 17, is Iraq’s most complex ground battle to date. It involves between 100 and 200 U.S. advisers. Hundreds more U.S. servicemembers are providing artillery and logistics support at nearby military bases in Makmour and Qayarrah. There are currently about 4,880 U.S. troops in Iraq.

The Mosul operation has gone more quickly than expected, but it is challenged by defenses with which the Islamic State group has surrounded the city. The militants are reportedly using roadside, vehicle-borne and even drone-delivered bombs, officials said. Twitter: @TaraCopp

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