In bat­tle for Mo­sul, blast slays U.S. sol­dier

Iraqi spe­cial forces join the fight for city

Baltimore Sun - - NATION & WORLD - By Qas­sim Ab­dul-Zahra and Su­san­nah Ge­orge

BARTELLA, Iraq — In an in­ten­si­fi­ca­tion of the bat­tle for Mo­sul, elite Iraqi spe­cial forces joined the fight Thurs­day, un­leash­ing a pre-dawn as­sault on an Is­lamic State-held town east of the be­sieged city.

Mean­while, the U.S. mil­i­tary an­nounced the first Amer­i­can death since the op­er­a­tion be­gan.

A mem­ber of the U.S. mil­i­tary as­sist­ing Iraqi forces in their push to re­take Mo­sul was killed by a road­side bomb Thurs­day, mark­ing the first Amer­i­can com­bat ca­su­alty in the cam­paign to oust the Is­lamic State group from its last ma­jor strong­hold in north­ern Iraq.

U.S. of­fi­cials said the sol­dier was fa­tally wounded near the town of Bashiqa, north­east of Mo­sul. He was op­er­at­ing as an ex­plo­sive ord­nance dis­posal spe­cial­ist in sup­port of Kur­dish pesh­merga fight­ers whoare part of an ef­fort to re­cap­ture Mo­sul that be­gan Mon­day. The of­fi­cials spoke on con­di­tion of anonymity.

The Amer­i­can was in or near a ve­hi­cle when he was hit, the of­fi­cials said. He later died of his wounds. His iden­tity was be­ing with­held pend­ing no­ti­fi­ca­tion of his fam­ily.

He was the fourth U.S. com­bat death in Iraq since the U.S. be­gan mil­i­tary oper­a­tions against the Is­lamic State with airstrikes in Au­gust 2014.

It was not clear whether other U.S. ser­vice mem­bers were hurt in the bomb at­tack Thurs­day.

As Iraq’s spe­cial forces ad­vanced on the town of Bartella, nine miles from Iraqi Kur­dish pesh­merga fight­ers mon­i­tor smoke from mil­i­tant po­si­tions Thurs­day in Bashiqa, a town near Mo­sul. Mo­sul’s out­skirts, they faced a fa­mil­iar foe — trucks packed with ex­plo­sives and driven by sui­cide bombers.

The mil­i­tants’ sig­na­ture bat­tle­field tac­tic, the weapons of­fered a glimpse at what Iraqi forces can ex­pect as they ap­proach the ex­trem­ists’ big­gest ur­ban bas­tion.

The pre-dawn as­sault was part of a multi-pronged op­er­a­tion on eastern ap­proaches to Mo­sul, Iraq’s sec­ond-largest city. At­tack he­li­copters strafed mil­i­tant po­si­tions as they ad­vanced amid a hail of gun­fire.

The U.S.-trained spe­cial forces, of­fi­cially known as the Counter Ter­ror­ism Ser­vice, are widely seen as Iraq’s most pro­fes­sional and least sec­tar­ian fight­ers, and have served as the shock troops in pre­vi­ous cam­paigns against the Is­lamic State, also called ISIS.

They are ex­pected to lead the charge into Mo­sul.

Mil­i­tants un­leashed nine sui­cide car and truck bombs against the ad­vanc­ing troops, eight of which were de­stroyed be­fore reaching their tar­gets, while the ninth struck a Humvee, Lt. Col Mun­tad­har al-Shim­mari said.

He did not give a ca­su­alty fig­ure, but an­other of­fi­cer said five Iraqi sol­diers were wounded. The of­fi­cer spoke on con­di­tion of anonymity.

“Af­ter we break them in Bartella, ev­ery­where else, they will crum­ble,” said Maj. Gen. Fad­hil Bar­wari. He said Is­lamic State had few de­fenses in the town, which was al­most empty of civil­ians. “They just left some snipers and sui­cide car bombs,” he said.

Mean­while, Iraqi Kur­dish forces, known as pesh­merga, used bull­doz­ers and other heavy equip­ment to fill trenches dug by the mil­i­tants as part of their de­fense of the ISIS-held village of Barima, then ad­vanced with their ar­mored ve­hi­cles to­ward the ex­trem­ists’ po­si­tions north­east of Mo­sul.

Mil­i­tary oper­a­tions also ap­peared to be un­der­way in Bashiqa, where smoke could be seen bil­low­ing up. A day ear­lier, Bashiqa was pounded by airstrikes and mor­tar fire from pesh­merga po­si­tions high above.

Mean­while, Prime Min­is­ter Haider al-Abadi said Mo­sul may fall sooner than ex­pected.

Speak­ing by video trans­mis­sion to a con­fer­ence in Paris fo­cused on post-lib­er­a­tion plan­ning for Mo­sul, he said Iraqi “forces are cur­rently push­ing for­ward more quickly than we thought, and more quickly cer­tainly than we es­tab­lished in our plan of cam­paign.”

SAFIN HAMED/GETTY-AFP

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