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.”
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.