- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 23, 2017

American-backed Iraqi forces retook the main airport and a critical military base from Islamic State control in western Mosul on Thursday, setting the stage for the final phase of the offensive to oust the terror group from Iraq.

Units from the Iraqi military’s elite counterterrorism forces, federal police and the Interior Ministry’s Rapid Response force flooded into the airport’s perimeter, securing the facility after token resistance from Islamic State, or ISIS or ISIL, fighters.

ISIS gunmen attempted to repel advancing Iraqi forces with a barrage of suicide car bombs and drones armed with mortars and grenades before retreating, Reuters reported Thursday.

“Daesh resistance is not inconsiderable, but they are trying to save their strength for inside the city,” 1st Lt. Ahmed al-Ghalabi of the Rapid Response force told Reuters, using the derogatory Arabic term for ISIS.

Meanwhile, Iraqi forces also secured the Ghozlani army base in southwest Mosul. Iraqi and coalition war planners expect to use both locations as staging areas as local forces press deeper into western Mosul — ISIS’s final major redoubt in Iraq.

Iraqi advances in Mosul comes amid discussion in Washington over increasing the U.S. military presence in Iraq and Syria.

Iraqi army and Kurdish paramilitary forces, supported by American heavy artillery and airpower, have liberated over half of ISIS’s self-styled Iraqi capital of Mosul from the terror group’s hold over the last four months.

Roughly 450 out of the nearly 5,000 conventional U.S. troops deployed to Iraq have been embedded in military adviser teams “at every level of command all over Iraq,” Col. John Dorrian, the top U.S. military spokesman in Iraq, told reporters Wednesday.

Those 450 troops do not account for the unknown number of U.S. special operations teams also advising Iraqi and Kurdish forces in the country, Col. Dorrian told reporters during a briefing from Baghdad Wednesday.

Gen. Joseph Votel, the head of U.S. Central Command, told The New York Times that additional American forces may be needed in Iraq to secure ISIS’s defeat in Mosul and assist Baghdad in postwar operations.

“I am very concerned about maintaining momentum,” Gen. Votel told reporters accompanying him on a trip to the Mideast. “It could be that we take on a larger burden ourselves,” he said, adding that more U.S. deployments to Iraq and Syria “is an option.”

Any additional U.S. forces that could be heading to Iraq or Syria would do so at the request of Baghdad or Damascus, Col. Dorrian said.

“We’re working by, with and through the Iraqi Security Forces in Iraq and then our partners in Syria. And that fundamental principle isn’t going to change,” he said, adding that previous deployments of U.S. forces into both countries followed that formula.

“We’ve done that a number of times. General Townsend’s been very clear that if he needs additional capabilities, requirements or authorities that he will request those through the chain of command. And he expects that we’ll continue to be supported,” Col. Dorrian added, referring to coalition commander Gen. Stephen Townsend.

Increased U.S. military presence in both countries is reportedly one of several options included in a long awaited 30-day review of the U.S. strategy to defeat the Islamic State ordered by President Donald Trump.

The review is nearly complete, with the final draft expected to be delivered to the White House early next week, according to the Pentagon.

The review and subsequent recommendations will address “not only core ISIS in Iraq and Syria” but also include civilian and possibly military options to engage the group’s growing presence in Afghanistan, Southeast Asia and elsewhere, Pentagon spokesman Capt. Jeff Davis said Tuesday.

Specifically, the review will weigh possible options to confront Islamic State in Iraq and Levant-Khorasan Province, or ISIL-K, which is the group’s Afghan cell headquartered in the eastern part of the country along the Pakistani border.

Providing little specifics, Capt. Davis characterized the review as “an outline of a strategy,” noting that while it was a Pentagon-led endeavor, it was “absolutely being done with input” from the intelligence community and the diplomatic corps.

He did note, however, elements of the review could also address an American role in the postwar mission for Iraq and Syria, once ISIS forces are driven out of both countries.

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