In battle for Mosul, blast slays U.S. soldier
Iraqi special forces join the fight for city
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.”