U.S. forces in­creas­ing foot­print ahead of Mo­sul op­er­a­tion

Daily Local News (West Chester, PA) - - WEATHER - By Su­san­nah Ge­orge

CAMP SWIFT, IRAQ >> Thir­teen years ago, Chase Snow’s fa­ther was among the Amer­i­can troops who moved into the Iraqi city of Mo­sul dur­ing the U.S.-led in­va­sion that top­pled Sad­dam Hussein. Now Snow, a U.S. Army spe­cial­ist, is de­ployed in Iraq to help in the fight to re­take the city from the Is­lamic State group.

The as­sault on Mo­sul, Iraq’s se­cond largest city, is bring­ing Amer­i­can forces into their most sig­nif­i­cant role in Iraq in years, in terms of num­bers and pres­ence on the front lines.

The lead-up to the as­sault has al­ready brought some U.S. forces into com­bat with the mil­i­tants. Spe­cial forces carry out raids along­side Iraqi troops in­side IS-held ter­ri­tory around Mo­sul. And now as Iraqi forces pre­pare for the op­er­a­tion to re­take the city, those raids have in­creased in fre­quency, ac­cord­ing to a coali­tion of­fi­cial, who spoke on con­di­tion of anonymity as he was not au­tho­rized to brief the me­dia.

The U.S. has also sent Apache he­li­copters to aid in the Mo­sul fight, ac­cord­ing to the Pen­tagon, a step that was not taken when Iraqi forces re­took the west­ern cities of Ra­madi and Fal­lu­jah.

The num­ber of U.S. troops in Iraq has steadily grown over the past two years to now nearly 6,000 ser­vice mem­bers, up from al­most none fol­low­ing the 2011 with­drawal from Iraq. The lat­est group, num­ber­ing nearly 600, be­gan to de­ploy in Septem­ber to Qa­yara air base, the fa­cil­ity 30 miles south of Mo­sul that is to be the main stag­ing ground for the as­sault on the city. Trucks have been rolling in the base for weeks with sup­plies and equip­ment, pre­par­ing it so coali­tion war­planes will be able to op­er­ate there.

“You’ve got to look at Mo­sul as the crown jewel right now,” said Maj. Gen. Gary Volesky, the head of U.S ground forces in Iraq, re­gard­ing the build-up of forces. The de­ploy­ments have “all been tar­geted to as­sist in the Mo­sul at­tack.”

Be­sides the hun­dreds of spe­cial forces, most of the Amer­i­can per­son­nel op­er­ate back from the front lines, co­or­di­nat­ing coali­tion airstrikes, track­ing Iraqi ground troops, shar­ing in­tel­li­gence and help­ing plan op­er­a­tions.

Snow, from Nashville, Tennessee, with the 101st Air­borne Di­vi­sion, is ad­vis­ing Iraqi of­fi­cers car­ry­ing out the Mo­sul op­er­a­tion. His fa­ther was also with the 101st in Mo­sul in 2003. Now on Snow’s Iraq de­ploy­ment, he car­ries the same Amer­i­can flag his fa­ther kept with him on all of his tours and his fa­ther’s good luck charm: a St. Michael prayer card.

“I know my fa­ther never thought I would be com­ing to Iraq,” Snow said

U.S. pres­ence at bases closer to Mo­sul in the lead up to op­er­a­tion is “es­sen­tial” to the ad­vise-and-as­sist mis­sion, said U.S. Army Col. Brett Sylvia, the com­mand­ing of­fi­cer at Camp Swift, a small coali­tion base out­side Makhmour, some 73 kilo­me­ters (45 miles) south­east of Mo­sul.

“If you’re not there, then you don’t have a voice,” Sylvia said, stand­ing in front of the bank of tele­vi­sions and desk­top mon­i­tors that he says con­sti­tutes the for­ward edge of the bat­tle for his men.

As of last week, there were 4,565 U.S. troops in Iraq, ac­cord­ing to the Pen­tagon. That doesn’t in­clude another 1,500 troops con­sid­ered there “on tem­po­rary duty,” whose num­ber changes daily, ac­cord­ing to the U.S. of­fi­cials

U.S. troop lev­els in Iraq peaked at 157,800 dur­ing the 2008 surge un­der then Pres­i­dent Ge­orge W. Bush, ac­cord­ing to the Pen­tagon. More than 140,000 U.S. troops were in Iraq when Pres­i­dent Barack Obama took of­fice in 2009. Obama drew down the forces un­til the com­plete with­drawal of late 2011 re­moved all com­bat troops from the coun­try, leav­ing be­hind only a few hun­dred U.S. train­ers, mainly civil­ians, to as­sist Iraqi se­cu­rity forces.

U.S. forces be­gan re­turn­ing af­ter the Is­lamic State group over­ran Mo­sul in the sum­mer of 2014 and blitzed across much of north­ern, cen­tral and west­ern Iraq, join­ing it to ter­ri­tory it holds in Syria.

THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

A U.S. Army sol­dier guards a po­si­tion at Camp Swift, north­ern Iraq. U.S. troops will be en­gaged more closely than ever in fight­ing against Is­lamic State group mil­i­tants as they back Iraqi forces in the long-an­tic­i­pated as­sault on Mo­sul.

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