By Phil Stewart
BAGHDAD (Reuters) - U.S. President Donald Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, flew into Iraq on Monday with the top U.S. military officer to get a first-hand assessment of the battle against Islamic State from U.S. commanders on the ground and to meet Iraqi officials.
For Kushner, who has not been to Iraq before, the trip comes at a critical time as Trump examines ways to accelerate a U.S.-led coalition campaign that U.S. and Iraqi officials say has so far been largely successful in uprooting Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria.
The visit appears to demonstrate the far-reaching portfolio of Kushner, 36, who is part of Trump’s innermost circle and who has been given a wide range of domestic and foreign policy responsibilities, including working on a Middle East peace deal.
Marine General Joseph Dunford, the chairman of the U.S. military’s Joint Chiefs of Staff, said he invited Kushner and Tom Bossert, White House homeland security adviser, to accompany him so they could hear “first-hand and unfiltered” from military advisers about the situation on the ground and interact with U.S. forces.
“I said, ‘Hey, next time I go to Iraq, if you’re interested, come and it’d be good,” Dunford said, adding he extended the invitation weeks ago.
That kind of ground-level awareness of the war helps inform strategic decisions, Dunford said, adding it was the same reason he regularly leaves Washington to visit Iraq.
“The more appreciation you could have for what’s actually happening on the ground, the more informed you are when you start talking about the strategic issues,” Dunford said.
Although media reported on Sunday that Kushner and Dunford were in Iraq over the weekend, they only arrived on Monday afternoon. Reuters was among a small group of reporters traveling with the U.S. delegation.
Kushner, who is married to Trump’s daughter Ivanka Trump, did not speak with reporters during the flight to Iraq.
Dunford’s spokesman, Navy Captain Greg Hicks, said Kushner was traveling on behalf of Trump to express the president’s support and commitment to Iraq’s government and U.S. personnel helping combat Islamic State.
Trump, who campaigned on defeating Islamic State, has yet to announce any dramatic shift in war strategy.
U.S. ROLE AFTER MOSUL FIGHT
The trip to Iraq comes as Iraqi security forces engage in fierce, house-to-house fighting to retake Mosul, Islamic State’s last major stronghold in Iraq and the city where leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared a caliphate nearly three years ago.
Nearly 290,000 people have fled the city to escape the fighting, according to the United Nations.
Although the loss of Mosul would deal a major defeat to Islamic State, U.S. and Iraqi officials are preparing for smaller battles even after the city is recaptured and expect the group to go underground to fight as a traditional insurgency.
What happens to the U.S. military role in Iraq after Mosul is recaptured remain unclear.
Influential Shi’ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr has previously called on Iraq’s government to order the withdrawal of U.S. and allied forces after the battle of Mosul is over.
Dunford said Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi understood the need for continued U.S. military support.
“It’s not our judgment that the Iraqis will be self sustaining and self sufficient in the wake of Mosul. More importantly, it’s not Prime Minister Abadi’s assessment,” Dunford said.
Across the border in Syria, a U.S.-backed campaign to isolate Islamic State’s de facto capital of Raqqa is advancing ahead of an eventual assault on the city.
U.S.-backed Syrian forces repelled a major counter-attack by Islamic State militants holding out at the country’s largest dam and in the nearby town of Tabqa, the group and activists said on Sunday. The dam is a strategic target in the military campaign, located about 40 km (25 miles) to the east of Raqqa.
(Reporting by Phil Stewart; Editing by Giles Elgood)