U.S. and allied officials say the final training for Iraqi forces will be done by the middle of the month, clearing the way for the long-anticipated campaign to retake Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city and a key stronghold of Islamic State.
Canadian Brig. Gen. Dave Anderson, the coalition’s director of training for Operation Inherent Resolve, called the training over the next two weeks the “final rehearsal” for the assault, and military officials estimated Wednesday that they will need between 35,000 and 40,000 troops to hold Iraq’s second-largest city once the terror group also known as ISIS or ISIL is driven out.
“Mosul’s going to fall, there’s no doubt about it,” Gen. Anderson told reporters during a briefing Wednesday from coalition headquarters in Baghdad.
But a victory in Mosul does not equal a defeat of Islamic State in Iraq. The city’s eventual recapture “just means [Islamic State] is defeated in its current format” as a viable fighting force on the battlefield, according to the one-star general.
“So it’s definitely not over. If anything, it’s going to be more difficult,” he said of the fight facing Iraqi, American and coalition forces after Mosul.
The coming Islamic State insurgency in Iraq coincides with rising regional tensions between Iraq and Turkey.
On Tuesday Baghdad demanded the complete withdrawal of all Turkish forces from the country, days after Ankara approved plans to extend the deployment of its roughly 2,000 troops in northern Iraq. Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said a continued Turkish presence in Iraq could trigger a new conflict between the two countries and their regional allies.
U.S. and coalition advisers are working feverishly to train up Iraq’s military forces to take on what promises to be a brutal counterinsurgency war with the remnants of Islamic State in Iraq, while simultaneously preparing those forces for the looming Mosul invasion and beyond.
Nearly all of the 12 Iraqi army brigades being deployed for the Mosul operation — between 10,000 and 20,000 troops — have undergone coalition training specifically tailored for the upcoming offensive.
The type of training U.S. and coalition forces administered to Iraqi forces ran the gamut from a standard eight-week program focusing heavily on dense urban warfare and countering explosive devices to shorter programs on combat first aid and advanced marksmanship training, according to Gen. Anderson.
The lack of these skills contributed to the abysmal defeat of those forces during Islamic State’s sweep through northern Iraq two years ago.
“Iraq’s army was not prepared for the conventional assault by [Islamic State],” Gen. Anderson said. The training carried out by U.S. and coalition advisers is “the coalition’s hand in ensuring that it is never repeated,” he said.
The end of mission training for Iraqi forces heading into Mosul is the latest indicator the highly anticipated operation is imminent. The White House in September approved an additional 615-troop deployment into Iraq to support the Mosul operation.
Mr. al-Abadi characterized the deployment — which pushed the number of American troops in the country above 5,000 for the first time since 2011 — as the “final increase” needed before the siege of Mosul can begin.
On Wednesday Gen. Anderson again declined to comment on how soon Iraqi troops and Kurdish paramilitary forces could begin moving into the city, reiterating it would be up to Baghdad when the operation kicks off. Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump has slammed the Obama administration and Democratic rival Hillary Clinton for what he said was loose talk openly letting Islamic State fighters know the U.S. battle plan.
Administration officials estimate that 3,000 to 4,000 Islamic State fighters are hunkered down inside Mosul, part of the terrorist group’s more than 10,000-member force stretching all the way to its Syrian “capital” in Raqqa.
An Islamic State defeat in Mosul would, for all intents and purposes, end the two-year U.S. mission in Iraq. “There are no other major objectives. This is it,” Pentagon spokesman Capt. Jeff Davis told reporters last week.
But Gen. Anderson made clear on Wednesday that after Mosul, the fight against Islamic State would be far from over, with many fearing the group will revert to guerrilla tactics and terror strikes if they lose their territorial base.
Islamic State operatives have carried out a growing wave of suicide bombings in the months leading up to the Mosul offensive, targeting Shiite populations in Baghdad and elsewhere in a clear echo of the efforts by the group’s predecessor, al Qaeda in Iraq.
Pockets in and around Baghdad controlled by Islamic State sleeper cells continue to wreak havoc inside the city, along with cells in Taji and Tamer districts north of the Iraqi capital. A series of explosions in the city late last month that left 15 dead and 55 wounded was the most recent terror attack claimed by Islamic State.
The attacks could threaten to highlight deep sectarian divisions and spark a new round of Sunni-Shia sectarian fighting that hallmarked the bloodiest days of the American occupation in the mid-2000s.
Separately, The Associated Press reported that a tribal leader said Wednesday that an airstrike killed 19 pro-government tribal Sunni fighters south of the town of Mosul, which is held by the Islamic State group.
Sheikh Nazhan al-Lihaibi said the airstrike took place at 2 a.m. Wednesday, following hours of clashes between his troops and Islamic State militants in the Haj Ali area to the east of the town of Qayara. The U.S.-led coalition said it had carried out strikes in the area at the request of Iraqi security forces, adding that it had destroyed a building and killed eight enemy fighters.
“We are aware of the reports that Sunni tribal fighters were in the building that was struck, and we are taking those reports seriously,” a spokesman for the U.S.-led coalition told the AP. He said allied and Iraqi security forces were carrying out a joint investigation.
• This article was based in part on wire service reports.