U.S. anticipates Mosul offensive with 25,000 Iraqi troops
The U.S. and Iraq are planning a spring offensive to retake the city of Mosul that will require 20,000 to 25,000 Iraqi troops to defeat 1,000 to 2,000 Islamic State fighters, according to an official from U.S. Central Command.
The main attack force of five Iraqi army brigades will need to be trained first by U.S. advisers, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity at a briefing Thursday to discuss military operations. The U.S. hasn’t ruled out delaying the offensive from a planned start in April or May if more time is required for training, most of which has yet to begin, the official said.
The battle for Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, would be the first major test for Iraqi forces since many fled as Islamic State extremists swept across northern Iraq last year to create their self-styled caliphate, or religious state.
Asked what’s changed since then, White House press secretary Josh Earnest said Friday that “the principal reason why we saw some weakness in the Iraqi security forces last year is that there was not a central government that could succeeded in unifying that country.”
Now, Earnest said on MSNBC, “there is a new central government in place” and “we are confident that, backed by American military air- power, they will be more effective on the battlefield.”
While some Iraqi officials pushed for an earlier offensive in Mosul, the U.S. has resisted such pleas, saying more time is needed for training.
There already has been public speculation about a possible Iraqi offensive this spring. The Central Command official offered details on the size of a force required to recapture Mosul, which Islamic State seized in June.
Providing specific information about a forthcoming military operation is unusual. When the official was asked why he was disclosing troop details, he said his briefing was intended to describe the commitment of Iraqi forces to the battle against the extremists.
Some U.S. defense and intelligence officials remain skeptical that a large Iraqi force can be ready and equipped for such a challenging mission in the next few months, raising questions about whether the briefing may have been intended in part to foster the impression that the Islamic State has lost the initiative and is now on the defensive.
Iraq has identified the units needed for a Mosul offensive, said the official from the Central Command, which oversees U.S. military operations in the Middle East.
The force will include five Iraqi army brigades, three smaller brigades serving as a reserve force, three brigades from the Kurdish Peshmerga military, a local force of police and tribal fighters, and some counterterrorism forces, the official said.
House-to-house fighting may be required to oust the Islamic State fighters from Mosul, downplaying the effects of the U.S. and allied air strikes that can be provided in a more open country.
Kurdish forces so far have been reluctant to operate in territory outside the region in northern Iraq that they aspire to include in an eventual independent state. While Shiite militias backed by Iran have shouldered some of the battle against the Sunni extremists of the Islamic State; they may not be as welcome in Mosul, a major Sunni population center.
The U.S. is considering offering a range of back- ing for the offensive, such as air support, intelligence and logistics, the official said. The military also hasn’t ruled out deploying a small number of U.S. troops on the ground to find targets and call in air strikes.
While President Barack Obama has pledged that U.S. forces won’t become embroiled in ground combat in Iraq, he asked the Congress this month to approve an authorization for use of military force, or AUMF, that he said would permit ground missions. These include serving as spotters for strikes, using special operations forces to target the Islamic State leaders, collecting intelligence and conducting rescue operations.
The U.S. and the allies have established five sites in the region to train Iraqi forces. About 3,200 forces are now in training and almost 2,000 have been graduated, the official said.
The coalition forces have conducted about 2,500 air strikes against the Islamic State since August, roughly equally divided between Iraq and Syria, the official said.