- The Washington Times - Monday, April 17, 2017

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 Abdel-Fattah 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 Somali-based 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 al-Baghdadi, 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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