U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said Tuesday Islamic State’s “days are numbered,” while cautioning that defeating the militant group is not imminent.
Mattis spoke to reporters before flying to Baghdad for an unannounced visit, where he met with Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi.
The two discussed security cooperation and U.S. support for Iraqi security forces, Abadi said in a tweet.
The Pentagon chief says stabilizing Iraq is “not going to happen overnight.”
“It’s going to be a heavy lift for them going forward,” Mattis noted.
U.S. forces have been leading a coalition of countries conducting airstrikes and other military operations in support of Iraq’s military since August 2014, a few months after Islamic State fighters swept through large areas of northern and western Iraq. The Iraqi troops scored a major victory in July by recapturing control of Mosul, the nation’s second largest city.
On Sunday, Iraq’s military launched an offensive to take back Tal Afar, an area about 60 kilometers west of Mosul.
The U.S. coalition is also supporting efforts to expel Islamic State from areas it controls in neighboring Syria, including its de facto capital in the city of Raqqa.
Mattis said Tuesday a focus of the Syrian campaign will be in the middle Euphrates valley, an area of Islamic State control extending along the Euphrates River south of Raqqa from Der el-Zour to the Iraqi border.
One challenge for Iraq’s future will be avoiding the fragmentation between the country’s Shi’ite, Sunni and Kurdish factions.
Mattis’ meetings included planned talks with Massoud Barzani, leader of Iraq’s semi-autonomous Kurdish region where next month there is a referendum scheduled on independence from the government in Baghdad.
Brett McGurk, the U.S. envoy to the coalition, said this is not the time to undertake the vote.
“A referendum at this time would be potentially catastrophic to the counter-ISIS campaign,” he said.