- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 23, 2017

The fight to drive Islamic State from Iraq will likely get tougher for Iraqi security forces and the U.S.-backed coalition supporting them, despite Baghdad securing one of the most important victories of the three-year war against the terrorist group.

The liberation of Mosul, once northern Iraq’s largest city and the main Islamic State stronghold in the country, was a strategic and symbolic win for the confederation of Iraqi forces, Kurdish paramilitaries and Iranian-backed Shia militias.

But now Iraqi commanders and their American advisers face the difficult task of transitioning from the dense, urban combat in Fallujah and Mosul to a more unconventional war plan for Islamic State enclaves in Hawija and western Anbar province, said a senior combat commander.

“There’s a period of transition that’s underway. And transitions are hard, and it’s a lot of work that remains. And we’re helping [Iraqi forces] through [this transition] right now,” said Army Col. Pat Work, commander of the 82nd Airborne’s Task Force Falcon U.S. military adviser group based in northern Iraq.

“No matter what the government of Iraq decides to do next, we’re going to be there to assist them,” Col. Work told reporters Friday during a briefing from Baghdad.

Since October Iraqi and coalition forces have slogged their way through Mosul in some of the most vicious urban combat since World War II, U.S. officials say. This month, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abedi declared the city liberated as Iraqi troops flushed out the majority of Islamic State fighters from the old city of Mosul, where the terrorist group made its last stand.

While Iraqi military and police mop up small pockets of Islamic State resistance in the western half of the city, clearing booby-trapped homes and buildings rigged to explode by retreating members of the terrorist group, the offensive’s focus has shifted to the Islamic State-held city of Tal Afar.

Shia paramilitaries, known as Popular Mobilization Forces, under Baghdad’s command have spent weeks closing in on the towns and villages surrounding Tal Afar, about 50 miles west of Mosul.

On Friday Col. Work declined to comment on whether U.S.-led coalition operations to invade Tal Afar had begun.

“There’s never not pressure on ISIS in any of the sanctuaries. There’s always pressure,” he said regarding local reports of so-called shaping operations in and around Tal Afar over the last several days.

The overall battle plan for Tal Afar, home to more than 200,000 Iraqis, will follow closely the one executed in Mosul, Col. Work said, warning against drawing direct comparisons to the Mosul campaign.

“We need to be careful as the Iraqi Security Forces make decisions that we give advice that recognizes the difference in the analogies. But, nonetheless, I think what we saw in Mosul will translate through these other havens that ISIS still has control of,” he said, using an acronym for the Islamic State.

While parallels in terrain and tactics may exist between Mosul and Tal Afar, commanders in Baghdad may be forced to change tactics once the fight shifts to Hawija and western Anbar, where Islamic State fighters enjoy greater freedom of movement in a more rural environment. That kind of combat could require an uptick in U.S. forces in the country in the near- to mid-term, authorities say.

That requirement possibly could expand and extend the U.S. military adviser mission, in both force levels and operational mandates, for the next year and a half as Baghdad tries to restabilize Mosul, Tal Afar and the surrounding Nineveh Province, Canadian Brig. Gen. D.J. Anderson, director of partner force development, told reporters this month.

“It involves the army, it involves elements of the federal police, the local police which secure the cities, elements of the [counterterrorism services] to conduct counter-insurgency and counter-terrorist operations, and, of course, in some of the provinces, border guards as well,” Gen. Anderson said. “We’ll stay in the business in the manner that we are for a long time.”

But Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend, the top U.S. commander in Iraq and Syria, flatly dismissed claims the American-led coalition would be forced to shift strategy that would require more U.S. boots on the ground. The current U.S. force levels on the ground that supported the Mosul operation would be enough to back the coming offensives in Tal Afar, Hawija and elsewhere, he said.

 

 

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