James Mattis Asia trip
Former Marine General US Secretary of Defense James Mattis Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

US Defense Secretary James Mattis has distanced himself from controversial comments made by President Donald Trump. This time about the US taking Iraq's oil.

"We're not in Iraq to seize anybody's oil," said Mattis during an unannounced visit to Iraq on Monday (20 February). The secretary is there to meet Iraqi and coalition partners fighting the Islamic State (Isis/Daesh).

Mattis has been tasked by Trump to come up with a plan within the first 90 days of his administration to defeat the extremist terrorist group. Under the president's timeline he has just under a month left to deliver it.

"I think all of us here in this room, all of us in America have generally paid for our gas and oil all along, and I'm sure that we will continue to do that in the future," Mattis said to a group of reporters.

Mattis' comments may seek to smooth over Trump's repeated claims in the first month of his presidency that the US should have taken Iraq's oil resources for itself during the second Iraq War and may still do so. Trump's comments caused local Iraqi lawmakers to urge Iraq's Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi to pull back cooperation with the US. The Iraqi military has been offering support to the US to fight IS in Iraq.

During an interview with ABC News in late January Trump said that America "should have kept the oil when we got out [of Iraq]. Had we taken the oil you wouldn't have IS". Trump was defending earlier comments he made during a visit to the Central Intelligence Agency headquarters a day after his inauguration. "To the victor belong the spoils," Trump told members of the intelligence community on 21 January. "So we should have kept the oil," he said. "But, OK, maybe you'll have another chance."

Trump has repeated these claims since the 2016 election campaign, when he said the US wouldn't be "stealing anything", but "reimbursing ourselves" for the Iraq War's cost.

These aren't the first statements by his boss that Mattis sought to temper during a series of foreign trips last week that saw him meet Nato leaders in Brussels, Belgium, and defence officials from around the world at a security conference in Munich, Germany.

"As President Trump has stated, he has strong support for Nato," Mattis said in Brussels, easing Trump's recent statement that the western defence alliance of largely European nations "obsolete." During the Munich conference Mattis insisted the US has an "enduring transatlantic bond" with Europe.