- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 1, 2016

The brutally simple weapon that for years caused problems for U.S. troops occupying Iraq and Afghanistan is now increasingly shaping the ongoing push by Iraq’s military and other allied ground forces to retake Mosul from the Islamic State.

Hundreds of so-called improvised explosive devices — or IEDs — already have killed dozens of the U.S.-backed forces approaching Mosul over the past two weeks as Iraqi commanders brace for increases in such attacks as they drive toward the city’s center.

Iraqi special forces entered Gogjali, a neighborhood inside Mosul’s eastern city limits Tuesday, and advanced into the suburbs of the Karama district for the first time since Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, overran Iraq’s second-largest city two years ago.

Tuesday’s push into Mosul’s outer limits by Iraqi and Kurdish forces marks the beginning of the second and more dangerous phase of the operation to pry the city from the terrorist group’s grasp.

Islamic State fighters also have constructed a maze of concrete blast walls and other obstructions in an attempt to slow and split Iraqi forces, as they slowly traverse through the city’s explosive-laden suburban expanses, which once was home to more than 2 million residents.

Waves of roadside and car bombs, as well as mortar and sniper fire, greeted Iraqi and coalition forces as they punched through Mosul’s borders, which have been under Islamic State control since 2014, according to Maj. Gen. Sami al-Aridi of the Iraqi special forces.

Heavy fighting broke out between Islamic State defenders and Iraqi troops near the end of their first day inside Mosul, as coalition troops attempted to press further into the more heavily fortified sections of the Karama suburb, Gen. al-Aradi told The Associated Press.

The advance and subsequent clashes inside Mosul on Tuesday could be the start of a grueling and slow operation for the troops, who will be forced to engage in difficult house-to-house fighting in urban areas that are expected to take weeks, if not months, as Islamic State militants dig in for a long and bloody fight.

The roughly 40,000-man force of Iraqi and Kurdish fighters, the latter of whom continued an assault on Mosul’s northeastern borders Tuesday, faces an estimated band of 3,000 to 7,500 Islamic State fighters backed with mortars, heavy artillery and hundreds of IEDs — basically homemade bombs.

As the weapon of choice for Afghan and Iraqi insurgents against U.S. forces during the wars in those countries, homemade bombs have left a bloody legacy on the U.S. military in the post 9/11 era.

At the height of conflict, IEDs accounted for more than 50 percent of all American casualties in Afghanistan from 2008 to 2011, hitting a peak of 60 percent in 2009, according to figures compiled by iCasualties, a nonprofit group that tracks unofficial U.S. casualty figures in Iraqi and Afghanistan.

While American forces are largely on the sidelines in the fight for Mosul, the next chapter in the weapon’s violent history will likely be written street by street, block by block, as coalition forces fight their way to the city’s center.

“This will be an engineering war,” Iraqi Brig. Gen. Yahya Rasool, Iraq’s spokesman for the Joint Military Command, told The Washington Times in July, referring to the country’s combat engineering corps, who will shoulder the burden in finding and defusing those deadly munitions.

Navy Chief Petty Officer Jason Finan, a member of Navy Explosive Ordinance Disposal Mobile Team Three, was killed by a roadside bomb while supporting advancing Iraqi troops driving toward Mosul on Oct. 20. He was the first American casualty of the operation, which had begun only a day before.

Pentagon spokesman Marine Corps Maj. Adrian Rankine-Galloway said Tuesday “it is safe to say” all manner of improvised explosives would play a key role in the city’s defenses, which Islamic State fighters have spent two years building up.

But homemade explosives aren’t the only combat engineering challenge facing advancing Iraqi troops, Maj. Rankine-Galloway Galloway said Tuesday.

Coalition forces will need American assistance in everything from clearing improvised bombs to bridging heavily defended waterways and clearing other obstructions as the fight in the city grinds on, he said, adding the Iraqis “do not have those capabilities” at the same level as their U.S. counterparts.

That said, U.S. commanders have invested heavily into forging Iraq’s cadre of bomb technicians, with over 23,000 trained at American camps near Baghdad and Irbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan in the northern part of the country, Gen. Rasool said in July.

That same month, Lt. Gen. Michael Shields, commander of the Joint Improvised-Threat Defeat Agency — the Pentagon directorate created specifically to address the threat of homemade bombs on the battlefield — visited Baghdad to oversee the U.S. training mission.

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