At six-month mark, bat­tle for Mo­sul a slog for troops

The Washington Times Daily - - FRONT PAGE - BY CARLO MUNOZ

It was a strong open­ing, but the endgame is prov­ing a hard slog for the U.S. and its Iraqi al­lies try­ing to oust Is­lamic State fight­ers from their last big out­post in the coun­try.

U.S.-backed Iraqi forces have made progress ex­tract­ing Is­lamic State fight­ers from their last re­doubts in the north­ern city of Mo­sul, but the bat­tle has de­scended into a frus­trat­ingly bloody affair at its six-month mile­stone with bru­tal street-by-street com­bat.

Iraqi and coali­tion forces have been build­ing steady mo­men­tum against the Is­lamic State in a se­ries of hard-fought bat­tle­field vic­to­ries since the mas­sive as­sault to re­take Mo­sul be­gan in Oc­to­ber, the top U.S. ground com­man­der, Army Maj. Gen. Joseph Martin, said Wed­nes­day.

“They’ve got the equip­ment they need, they’ve got the mo­men­tum they need … and that’s why they’re mak­ing

progress each and ev­ery day,” Gen. Martin told re­porters dur­ing a tele­con­fer­ence from coali­tion head­quar­ters in Baghdad.

The pace of the fight­ing has be­come a po­lit­i­cal is­sue in the U.S. af­ter Don­ald Trump on the cam­paign trail last year charged that the Mo­sul of­fen­sive was “bog­ging down” be­cause of the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion’s huge ad­vance warn­ing be­fore the first shots were fired. The cap­ture of Mo­sul would de­prive the Is­lamic State of its last ma­jor foothold in Iraq even as the U.S. and its al­lies in Syria lay siege to the ter­ror­ist group’s de facto cap­i­tal of Raqqa.

A few thou­sand Is­lamic State fight­ers have dug in for the fi­nal bat­tle. In the Old City, heavy smoke was ris­ing from the area of the Grand al-Nuri Mosque, where Is­lamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Bagh­dadi de­clared a “caliphate” span­ning parts of Iraq and Syria, the Reuters news agency re­ported Wed­nes­day.

Iraqi forces, backed by U.S. and coali­tion heavy ar­tillery and air power, rode the cam­paign’s early mo­men­tum across the Ti­gris River and into the teeth of the Is­lamic State’s heav­ily for­ti­fied strong­hold of eastern Mo­sul in Jan­uary, weeks af­ter com­pletely flush­ing its fight­ers from the western por­tion of the city.

But the Is­lamic State’s dev­as­tat­ingly ef­fec­tive weapons and tac­tics — in­clud­ing chem­i­cal weapons and con­ver­sion of com­mer­cial drones and hand grenades into fly­ing bombs — cou­pled with Mo­sul’s labyrinthine ur­ban landscape has largely stopped that mo­men­tum.

In the months since break­ing into the city’s eastern dis­tricts, the of­fen­sive’s progress has bogged down sig­nif­i­cantly into the tough­est ur­ban fight­ing U.S. forces have seen since World War II, said Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend, the top U.S. com­man­der in Iraq.

Amer­i­can and coali­tion fire­power, which was key to the Iraqi forces’ rapid ad­vance in western Mo­sul, has also been stymied by the Is­lamic State group’s use of Iraqi civil­ians as hu­man shields to frus­trate coali­tion airstrikes.

U.S. and coali­tion war­planes were forced to tem­po­rar­ily scale back their op­er­a­tions af­ter a string of strikes was blamed for hun­dreds of civil­ian ca­su­al­ties. Roughly a half-mil­lion Mo­sul res­i­dents have fled the fight­ing, fill­ing nearby refugee camps al­ready inun­dated from pre­vi­ous fight­ing.

On Wed­nes­day, Gen. Martin said the blood­shed would likely es­ca­late as Iraqi ground forces and their coali­tion al­lies brace for the endgame in western Mo­sul.

“What’s left is a tough fight through some very com­pli­cated ter­rain that will re­quire a sig­nif­i­cant amount of tenac­ity and com­mit­ment,” the gen­eral said. “But I as­sure you, the Iraqi Se­cu­rity Forces are up to that task.”

More sup­port

De­spite the con­fi­dence U.S. and coali­tion com­man­ders ex­press in the Iraqi forces car­ry­ing the brunt of the fight­ing, the Pen­tagon is poised to push through a nearly $300 mil­lion heavy weapons and ar­tillery pack­age re­quested by Baghdad for the Mo­sul fight. The De­fense Depart­ment no­ti­fied Congress of the specifics of the deal on Wed­nes­day.

The pack­age will out­fit two full in­fantry brigades and two sup­port ar­tillery bat­tal­ions of the Kur­dish pesh­merga with body ar­mor, heavy ma­chine guns, mine-proof tac­ti­cal ve­hi­cles and 105 mm How­itzers, ac­cord­ing to the Pen­tagon. The pesh­merga, the Kur­dish para­mil­i­tary force, was in­te­gral in stem­ming the Is­lamic State’s drive through Syria and Iraq two years ago. Those forces again proved in­valu­able as part of the Iraqi-led in­va­sion of Mo­sul.

Also tucked into the Pen­tagon’s aid pack­age was de­fen­sive equip­ment to pro­tect Kur­dish mili­tia mem­bers from chem­i­cal at­tacks.

The Is­lamic State has launched 52 chem­i­cal strikes against coali­tion forces in Iraq and Syria, the Lon­don-based IHS con­flict mon­i­tor said in a re­port pub­lished late last year. Of those 52 at­tacks, 19 were car­ried out in and around Mo­sul, ac­cord­ing to the re­port.

Gen. Martin con­firmed that Iraqi troops were in­jured by an Is­lamic State chem­i­cal at­tack in western Mo­sul this week.

He de­clined to com­ment dur­ing Wed­nes­day’s brief­ing whether Amer­i­can and Aus­tralian mil­i­tary ad­vis­ers who were at­tached to the tar­geted Iraqi unit had been in­jured dur­ing the at­tack. As the Is­lamic State faces loom­ing de­feat in the coun­try, the Iraqi govern­ment is mak­ing the case that the cost of re­build­ing the war-torn coun­try af­ter the ter­ror­ist group’s ouster could dwarf the cam­paign to erad­i­cate it.

In the af­ter­math

Iraq’s am­bas­sador to the United States, Fa­reed Yasseen, has pressed the need for al­lies to fo­cus on the mas­sive re­con­struc­tion ef­fort.

While Mr. Yasseen said Iraq’s neigh­bors — from the Gulf Arab states to Iran — could all play sig­nif­i­cant roles in re­build­ing Mo­sul, he sug­gested that Wash­ing­ton’s help will be crit­i­cal.

“As we drive [the Is­lamic State] down, the tools that we’ll re­quire to deal with them are go­ing to change from be­ing mil­i­tary-fo­cused to se­cu­rity and in­tel­li­gence,” Mr. Yasseen told an au­di­ence Wed­nes­day at an event hosted jointly in Wash­ing­ton by the Stim­son Cen­ter and Trends Re­search and Ad­vi­sory, an Abu Dhabi-based think tank.

“The first phase af­ter ar­eas are lib­er­ated is to sta­bi­lize them. If you don’t do that, you won’t be able to have re­turnees,” he said, not­ing that some 400,000 dis­placed Iraqis are hop­ing to re­turn to Mo­sul.

Still, the am­bas­sador as­serted, “life is begin­ning to pick up” in some lib­er­ated ar­eas.

“One of the most heart­en­ing things you can see in Mo­sul it­self are girls go­ing back to school. That’s a game-changer for peo­ple,” he said. Un­der Is­lamic State rule, he said, “most of these stu­dents were kept home for two years.”

Gen. Martin said Wed­nes­day that his mil­i­tary ad­viser corps was tran­si­tion­ing from a war foot­ing to one of sup­port in co­or­di­na­tion with Baghdad and of­fi­cials from the United Na­tions and var­i­ous in­ter­na­tional aid or­ga­ni­za­tions.

“Mo­sul’s res­i­dents are on track to a sense of nor­malcy that ex­isted prior to the bru­tal rule of ISIS in the city,” the gen­eral said.

AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

CA­SU­AL­TIES: Iraqis in­jured by an airstrike were trans­ported Wed­nes­day to a field hos­pi­tal in Mo­sul as troops sup­ported by the U.S. con­tin­ued a tough bat­tle.

AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

A woman was treated at a field hos­pi­tal on Wed­nes­day. Amer­i­can and coali­tion fire­power, which was key to the Iraqi forces’ rapid ad­vance in western Mo­sul, has also been stymied by the Is­lamic State group’s use of Iraqi civil­ians as hu­man shields.

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