U.S. gets ready for Mosul offensive
Pentagon sending 600 more troops to Iraq to help retake key city from ISIS
ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — The Pentagon plans to send more than 600 additional troops to Iraq to help launch a long-awaited offensive to retake Mosul in coming weeks, the most ambitious operation yet in the two-year military campaign against Islamic State.
The escalation, which has been approved by the White House, suggests the challenges U.S.-backed Iraqi ground forces will face in assaulting a heavily defended major urban center that is the capital of Islamic State’s self-declared caliphate in Iraq and the largest city under its control anywhere.
President Barack Obama would like to see the militants ejected or defeated in Iraq before he leaves office in January.
The Pentagon has about 6,000 troops, mostly operating as advisers and trainers, in Iraq. American military presence is mostly Army Capt. Gerrard Spinney confers with his Iraqi counterpart this month before a meeting at Camp Swift in Iraq. The groups that make up Iraq’s forces are converging on Mosul. with the U.S.-led coalition warplanes based outside Iraq that have carried out thousands of airstrikes since mid-2014.Most of the new U.S. troops will be deployed to Qayyarah, an Iraqi air base known as Q-West, about 40 miles south of Mosul that has become a key staging base for the planned assault. Some also will be deployed to the al-Asad air base, which is farther west in Anbar province, to help with logistics.
A small component of special operations forces will also be dispatched to help Iraqi commanders gather and analyze intelligence from the battlefield.
Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend, commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, must give his approval for the advisers to accompany Iraqi troops at the battalion level, meaning they could operate closer to the front line. U.S. advisers thus far have been largely confined to Iraqi division headquarters.
Defense Secretary Ash Carter said Wednesday that the Pentagon plans to send “approximately 600 troops.” Asenior defense official said 615 troops will be deployed.
Carter said they will help Iraqi forces and Kurdish fighters to “isolate and collapse” Islamic State’s control over Mosul and “to protect and expand Iraqi security forces gains elsewhere.”
“The Iraqi security forces have the combat role and we’re in the support role, but I need to make clear: American forces combating ISIL are in harm’s way,” he said, using an acronym for the group also known as ISIS.
Carter said the Pentagon does not know if the militants plan to fight street by street for Mosul, as many have feared, or will abandon the city before the assault, as has happened in several battles recently. “Nor do we know whether they will be able to carry out whatever plans they have,” he said. It’s unclear “whether their fighters will stick with them, whether they will have the morale to do that, (and) whether the populace of Mosul will tolerate their continued presence in the city.”
Surveillance drones and spy satellites have seen fighters building defensive positions inside Mosul, although the militants have sought to hide their activity with smoke from fires.
U.S. planes have also sought to undermine support for the militants, and warn of the assault, by dropping propaganda leaflets on the city.
The offensive, first promised in 2015, has been repeatedly postponed as Iraqi security forces focused on retraining and on pushing the militants from other cities and towns closer to Baghdad, the capital.
Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al- Abadi said Wednesday that he had requested more U.S. troops after “consultation” with Obama. The two leaders met Sept. 19 on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly in New York.
Al-Abadi said “the role of the trainers and advisers is not combat, but for training and consultation only.”
“It is our troops who will liberate the land,” he said.
Kurdish troops will coordinate with Iraqi and coalition forces in the attack.
In recent weeks, Iraqi and Kurdish ground forces have retaken towns and cities around Mosul and have cut off major supply routes.
“The president regularly asks: ‘Could we make more progress if we devote additional resources to that eff ort?’ ” White House spokesman Josh Earnest said Tuesday about Obama. “And when the answer to that question is yes, the president has worked very closely with his team to find those resources and to devote them to that effort in a timely fashion.”