- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 20, 2016

A U.S. service member in northern Iraq was killed Thursday in a roadside bomb attack outside the Islamic State stronghold of Mosul, the first casualty suffered by American forces since the beginning of the Iraqi assault on the city.

The American service member succumbed to wounds suffered during the bombing on Thursday, according to a brief statement from U.S. Central Command.

Command officials did not release details on the individual’s identity, which military branch the slain service member served under or the specific location of the attack. However, media reports suggest the attack took place in the vicinity of Bardella, a northern Iraqi town 13 miles from Mosul’s eastern borders. In a significant escalation of the battle for Mosul, elite Iraqi special forces led a predawn assault on Bartella, The Associated Press reported.

The death comes a day after Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump questioned the strategy and the progress of the Mosul fight in his debate with Democrat Hillary Clinton, shining a political spotlight on the fight that could dominate the final days of President Obama’s term in office.

There have been conflicting reports of how the overall battle has gone so far, with Mr. Trump saying in Wednesday night’s debate the fighting had been more difficult than U.S. and allied commanders had anticipated.

Islamic State militants unleashed at least nine suicide car and truck bombs against the advancing troops, eight of which were destroyed before reaching their targets, while the ninth struck an armored Humvee, Iraqi officials said.

But Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, whose government is under heavy pressure to deliver a victory, said Thursday Mosul may fall sooner than expected. The campaign had been expected to last weeks, if not months.

Speaking by video transmission to a conference in Paris focused on post-liberation planning for Mosul, the Iraqi leader said the government-led “forces are currently pushing forward more quickly than we thought, and more quickly certainly than we established in our plan of campaign,” according to the AP.

Roughly 100 military advisers with U.S. special operations forces are embedded with Iraqi counterterrorism and Kurdish peshmerga units, who have been advancing on Mosul’s southern and eastern flanks since the campaign kicked off four days ago.

Those deployments, roughly the size of a U.S. Army Operational Detachment-Alpha, or “A-Team,” of between 12 to 16 troops, have been helping coordinate airstrikes and heavy artillery strikes as units advance deeper into Islamic State-controlled territory, U.S. officials said this week.

While U.S. troops are not fighting alongside their Iraqi and Kurdish counterparts along the Mosul front lines, U.S. officials said those troops are stationed alongside unit commanders at the battalion level, and move forward with those commanders as the offensive progresses.

The remaining 5,000 to 6,000 American troops supporting the Mosul campaign are headquartered at the American military outpost in al Qayara, 40 miles south of Iraq’s second-largest city and Islamic State’s last major stronghold inside the country.

Thursday’s casualty is the fourth American death in Iraq since the U.S.-led coalition launched its campaign against Islamic State, also known as ISIS and ISIL, in 2014 and the first suffered since the beginning of the Mosul operation.

Navy SEAL Charlie Keating IV, a former Phoenix high school star distance runner and the grandson of the late Arizona financier involved in the 1980s savings and loan scandal, was killed in May.

Pentagon Press Secretary Peter Cook told reporters Monday that Iraqi and peshmerga units were moving “ahead of schedule,” but could not rule out the possibility that U.S. commanders will send American troops into Mosul as the battle progresses. “I’m not ruling it in, I’m not ruling it out. We are on Day One,” he told reporters at the Pentagon.

U.S. officials said Tuesday that American and coalition forces could reach the heart of Mosul in a matter of weeks, but warned fighting will only intensify as U.S.-backed Iraqi forces move closer to the city. Mr. Trump and some private experts have criticized the openness with which U.S. and allied officials have discussed their battle plans for Mosul, claiming it has allowed the terror group to prepare its defenses and spirit away any leaders who were based in the city.

U.S. officials believe that the majority of Islamic State defections from Mosul ahead of the offensive were complete, and the remaining commanders and fighters in Mosul would likely dig in to defend the city, possibly deploying chemical weapons as part of their defense plans.

— This article was based in part on wire service reports.

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