WASHINGTON (AFP, BLOOMBERG, REUTERS) - Defeating the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is the top US goal in the Middle East, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said on Wednesday (March 22) at a gathering of a 68-nation coalition to defeat the terrorist group.
“I recognize there are many pressing challenges in the Middle East, but defeating ISIS is the United States’s number one goal in the region,” Mr Tillerson said in prepared remarks for the opening of the coalition’s two-day meeting in Washington. “When everything is a priority, nothing is a priority. We must continue to keep our focus on the most urgent matter at hand.”
Mr Tillerson also declared that ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s death is imminent, as US-backed forces close in on the jihadists in Syria and Iraq.
“Nearly all of Abu Bakr Baghdadi’s deputies are now dead, including the mastermind behind the attacks in Brussels, Paris and elsewhere,” Mr Tillerson told the coalition meeting in Washington.
“It is only a matter of time before Baghdadi himself meets this same fate,” he promised, as he opened discussions between the 69 members of the US-led military coalition and their Iraqi ally.
The United States will also increase pressure on ISIS and Al-Qaeda and work to set up “interim zones of stability” to help refugees return home in the next phase of the battle to defeat the groups, Mr Tillerson said, but he did not elaborate on where the United States planned to set up these safety zones.
Ministers from the coalition have gathered in Washington to hear more about US President Donald Trump's plan to destroy the militants' remaining strongholds in Iraq and Syria.
Mr Trump has ordered his generals to craft an accelerated strategy to "eradicate" the group's so-called caliphate, and allied partners are keen to learn more at the day-long ministerial-level discussion.
The meeting at the State Department also allows Mr Tillerson to emerge from the shadows and stamp his authority on the diplomatic side of the joint effort.
But Mr Trump's plan to slash 28 per cent from the State Department's budget for diplomacy and foreign aid suggests fewer resources for post-conflict stabilisation - a proposal that has raised eyebrows.
European diplomats told AFP they expect Washington to reaffirm its commitment to a longer-term plan to secure the region after a battlefield victory.
Iraq's Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi was in Washington just ahead of the talks, and said victory against ISIS was within sight if allies stick together.
"We are proving that Daesh can be killed, can be eliminated," Mr Abadi told an invited audience at the US Institute for Peace, using the group's Arabic acronym.
"We shouldn't lose focus, we shouldn't give Daesh a second chance."
Shortly after taking office in late January, Mr Trump gave the Pentagon 30 days to review progress in the anti-ISIS fight and develop a comprehensive plan to "totally obliterate" the group.
As a candidate, Mr Trump frequently bemoaned how long then president Barack Obama was taking to get the job done - and claimed to have a secret plan to finish ISIS.
He never offered details and so far has largely stuck with Mr Obama's strategy, which centres on US-led or guided forces carrying out continual surveillance and strikes on militant targets, while training and equipping local forces to conduct ground combat and hold seized terrain.
Mr Trump has made some notable tweaks, including granting commanders broader authority to make battlefield decisions.
Military officers had complained of micromanagement under Mr Obama, but critics worry the military may now lean toward actions with a greater likelihood of civilian deaths, such as a botched January raid in Yemen that killed a Navy Seal and several women and children.
The Pentagon is also investigating allegations that a strike it launched on a suspected Al-Qaeda target near a mosque in northern Syria killed dozens of civilians.
Last month, the Pentagon gave Mr Trump an initial draft of its revised anti-ISIS plan.
Pentagon spokesman Jeff Davis said the document would "inform" Wednesday's diplomatic discussions, and feedback from coalition partners would be integrated.
On Oct 17 last year, coalition-backed Iraqi troops launched an offensive to retake Mosul from the ISIS group's so-called caliphate.
By Feb 19, they had cleared the East bank of the Tigris and had begun to push into militant strongholds on the West. They have suffered heavy casualties but continue to progress.
Meanwhile, the militants' "capital" in Syria is increasingly isolated, but planning for its recapture has been complicated by the diplomatic and political situation in the country.
The Pentagon is backing an alliance of local Kurdish and Arab militias to take the city, but Turkey has its own rebel force in the region and Russia is backing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's regime.
The US does not want to commit too many of its own troops to the fight - despite plans to more than double its own 850-strong contingent in the country and add artillery units.