- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 2, 2016

U.S.-backed Iraqi troops hit pause on their assault on the Islamic State-held city of Mosul on Wednesday, shifting focus to flush out the remaining pockets of insurgents in the territory already cleared by local forces.

Iraqi forces east of Iraq’s second-largest city spent the day “conducting back clearances on a lot of their recently seized areas” while reinforcing their defensive lines along Mosul’s eastern suburbs, said Navy Capt. Jeff Davis, a Pentagon spokesman in Washington.

In the easternmost district of Gogjali, shops were boarded up, with some reduced to burned-out shells. Families stood in their doorways, some holding white flags, while children flashed the “V” for victory sign to the passing troops. A few women ululated in celebration as columns of vehicles passed.

But low visibility in the skies above Mosul — which prevented U.S. and coalition warplanes from providing air support — also played a role in halting the Iraqi advance west into the city, Brig. Gen. Haider Fadhil told The Associated Press.

Islamic State fighters have set oil wells and sulfur deposits ablaze in an attempt to cloud the skies and stymie coalition-led close-air support operations for Iraqi and Kurdish ground troops.

Spearheaded by Iraqi special operations troops, coalition forces breached Mosul’s city limits on Tuesday, marking the first time in two years that government forces have stepped foot inside the city, which fell under the control of the Islamic State group, also known as ISIS and ISIL.

Punching through the city’s borders “is a very important milestone, but we know there is more work to be done,” said Capt. Davis, referring to the heavy combat between Islamic State fighters and coalition forces to the north and south of the city.

Coalition ground troops expect a slow, grueling advance into Mosul. Difficult house-to-house fighting in urban areas could take weeks, if not months, as Islamic State militants dig in for a long and bloody fight.

About 40,000 Iraqi and Kurdish troops are up against 3,000 to 7,500 Islamic State fighters backed with mortars, heavy artillery and hundreds of improvised explosive devices — basically homemade bombs.

Kurdish peshmerga troops north of Mosul are several miles from the city, clearing towns and villages south of the Iraqi town of Khorsabad, Capt. Davis said. Iraqi army and federal police units are mired near Hamam al-Ali, 19 miles south of Mosul, amid stiff resistance from Islamic State fighters, according to the AP.

In some cases, Iraqi and Kurdish fighters “slice through them like butter and there are others that put up quite a fight,” said Capt. Davis, adding that coalition troops also have “the IED aftermath to contend with.”

Islamic State fighters have planted homemade bombs in the towns and villages leading into Mosul as part of the terrorist group’s defenses.

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

Navy Chief Petty Officer Jason Finan, a member of Navy Explosive Ordinance Disposal Mobile Team 3, 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 earlier.

U.S. military advisers embedded with advancing Iraqi and Kurdish units remain off the front lines, with headquarters staff at the brigade level, Capt. Davis said.

Capt. Davis did not rule out the possibility of U.S. advisers finding themselves inside Mosul, alongside their Iraqi and Kurdish counterparts, as the assault progresses deeper into the city.

“We’ll cross that bridge when we get to it,” said Capt. Davis, adding that the decision will be up to Army Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend, commander of all U.S. forces in Iraq.

Concern over the fate of civilians caught up in the fighting in and around Iraq’s second-largest city has been growing. Residents reported that Islamic State militants were rounding up thousands of people as human shields or killing those with suspected links to the security forces.

According to one account given to the AP, the fighters went door to door in villages south of Mosul, ordering hundreds to march at gunpoint into the city. Combat in the urban areas is expected to be heavy, and the presence of civilians will slow the army’s advance as it seeks to avoid casualties.

Islamic State militants have carried out mass killings of opponents and boasted about their actions in grisly online photos and video. The United Nations has urged authorities to collect evidence of Islamic State abuses of civilians for use in tribunals.

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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