“There’s a lot of logistical support coming out of here,” US-led coalition spokesman
QAYYARAH, Iraq: Just months after its recapture from the Islamic State group, the sprawling Qayyarah base in north Iraq has become a hub for operations to retake Mosul from the jihadists.
Iraq this week announced the start of operations to retake Mosul, its last city held by IS, and security forces are fighting their way toward it from the north, east and south.
Iraqi police and soldiers, and hundreds of forces from the US-led coalition against IS are deployed in Qayyarah carrying out artillery strikes against the jihadists and working to rebuild the base.
Meanwhile, the US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter arrived in Ankara for talks with the leaders of Turkey, a crucial but sensitive ally in the fight against the Islamic State group.
Washington is worried by tensions between Turkey and Iraq as the long-awaited battle to retake Iraq’s second city Mosul from IS jihadists enters a decisive phase.
The visit comes as Turkish warplanes carried out deadly strikes on US-backed militias in northern Syria, including Syrian Kurdish fighters.
The Turkish army said Thursday the raids killed between 160 and 200 militants from the People’s Protection Units (YPG), a group considered a terror group by Ankara but an effective force by Washington in the fight against IS.
The Pentagon chief was due to meet with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Prime Minister Binali Yildirim, as well as Defence Minister Fikri Isik.
Turkey, which fears the Mosul offensive could boost the influence of anti-Ankara Kurdish militia, says it cannot stay on the sidelines, but Baghdad is firmly against the involvement of Turkish troops.
The US wants Turkey to refrain from military operations in Iraq without the green light from Baghdad, fearing the war of words could jeopardize a fragile pact to keep rival sectarian and ethnic militias out of central Mosul.
A senior US defense official said Washington was urging both sides to “tamp down the rhetoric”.
In Iraq, meanwhile, gunmen wearing suicide vests attacked government targets in the Kurdish-controlled city of Kirkuk and killed 16 at an Iranian-run construction site further north as troops advanced toward Mosul.
About Qayyarah becoming a major hub for operations to retake Mosul, Lieutenant General Raed Tawfiq Jawdat, commander of the federal police, said it is the most important base for supplying Iraqi forces that are advancing toward Mosul from the south.
There are at least 7,000 forces deployed in Iraq as part of a 60-nation coalition assisting the war against IS in Iraq and Syria. At least half of them are Americans.
The base is surrounded by a massive dirt berm, with tanks and other armored vehicles positioned inside.
Most of the soldiers and police on the base are housed in tents that are coated with the powdery dust that covers the ground in the base and the desert beyond.
IS jihadists did their best to deny Iraqi forces use of the base before they lost it in July, destroying buildings, toppling concrete walls, and disabling the runway.
“We saw there was a lot of damage. Daesh did a lot of deliberate damage to try to make the base as (unusable) as possible,” Major Chris Parker, a spokesman for the US-led coalition, told AFP at Qayyarah, using an Arabic acronym for the jihadist group.
The runway “was completely unusable when we came in,” with trenches dug in it and bombs placed in the area, Parker said.
Coalition and Iraqi forces have been working to rebuild Qayyarah, and “we’ve seen the base develop very quickly,” Parker said.
The US air force has finished repairing the runway, which will eventually allow supplies to be flown in by cargo planes as well as arriving on the ground, though it is not yet open for use, he said.
Already, “there’s a lot of logistical support coming out of here” for the Mosul operation, Parker said.
There is also “a lot of fire support. So Qayyarah is very important to the Mosul liberation,” battle hub said.
American and French artillery is deployed at the base, carrying out strikes against IS and also firing illumination and smoke rounds in support of Iraqi troops.
American HIMARS rocket launchers can hit IS far to the north, with a range that extends to the city of Mosul.
The HIMARS position is marked by a spray-painted sign reading “Rocket City,” with the rusty tails of old bombs or rockets stuck in the ground in front.
Hulking Paladin mobile artillery pieces are stationed nearby, with tents of camouflage netting providing shelter for the soldiers who man them.
While the base is relatively safe, IS has targeted it with artillery before. But the battle is moving farther away from Qayyarah as Iraqi troops close in on Mosul.