Gen. Joseph F. Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, paid a visit on Friday to a tiny artillery outpost in Iraq, presenting Purple Hearts to four service members wounded in a recent rocket attack that also killed an American Marine.
During a stop in Iraqi Kurdistan at the end of a three-day visit to Iraq, Dunford slipped away by helicopter to Fire Base Bell, a tiny post adjacent to a larger Iraqi base southeast of Mosul. Accompanied by only a handful of aides, Dunford spent about 90 minutes with the approximately 200 Marines at the isolated facility, close to the front lines with the Islamic State.
Speaking to reporters later in the day, Dunford said he distributed the awards at the very gun position where Staff Sgt. Louis Cardin, a member of the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit, was killed last month in a militant rocket attack.
Cardin’s death, which came shortly after the defensive base was established, was the second combat death of the renewed U.S. military campaign in Iraq, signaling deepening involvement in the campaign against the Islamic State.
Dunford said it was an emotional moment as he thanked the Marines, who operate four M777 Howitzers, providing protection not just to Iraqi troops massing for an eventual offensive to reclaim Mosul, but to nearby American advisers helping them prepare for it.
When defensive fire was required, “they’re gonna get it on time and they’re gonna get it on target,” he said.
The general described progress in preparations for a future Iraqi offensive to reclaim Mosul. After meeting with Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi and Massoud Barzani, president of the Iraqi Kurdistan, this week, he said he saw signs that the Iraqi leaders appeared to be ready to collaborate on a joint plan to push into the city.
The United States is hoping that Kurdish peshmerga forces, who have proved effective in rebuffing the Islamic State, will play a key role in the offensive.
Dunford said Iraq and its allies had gained the momentum against the militants, who have lost territory across Iraq since they burst into northern Iraq in 2014. But he said maintaining the momentum requires additional efforts to build up a cohesive, well-equipped Iraqi force capable of taking on a well-armed group. “Once you got somebody in a headlock, you don’t let them go,” he said.
He acknowledged that morale continue to be mixed across the Iraqi army, suggesting the Iraqi government would likely select the units with the most experience and hardiness, such as the elite Counter-Terrorism Service forces, to spearhead the advance into well-defended Mosul.
Dunford said good leadership, along with the presence of coalition air cover, would increase the confidence and morale of Iraqi troops. President Obama recently approved the use of American attack helicopters for the Mosul battle.
“This is a clash of wills,” he said. “Whoever’s will is the strongest is going in the end to be successful.”