- The Washington Times - Monday, March 6, 2017

It was supposed to be a long hard slog, but top commanders within the U.S.-backed coalition battling the Islamic State now say Mosul, the terrorist group’s last urban stronghold in Iraq, could be back under Baghdad’s control within weeks.

Iraqi military units, alongside Shiite militiamen and Kurdish peshmerga fighters, have spent the past four months in grueling urban combat against forces loyal to the Islamic State, also known as ISIS and ISIL, through the eastern half of Mosul.

With support from U.S. heavy artillery and air power, the Iraqi-led coalition capped the offensive late last month, seizing Mosul’s main airport and a critical military base before setting its sights on the western side of Iraq’s second-largest city.

Then came a flurry of fast-paced developments Monday as the coalitions suddenly closed in on a key provincial government complex in the Dawasa enclave of western Mosul, prompting a wave of optimistic projections from Iraqi commanders.

The Islamic State’s “defenses are buckling under the pressure,” said Iraqi Air Force Cmdr. Hamid Maliki. Given the speed and relative success of the Iraqi offensive, Mosul will likely fall to Iraqi forces “within the next six weeks,” Cmdr. Maliki told the Anadolu News Agency.



In Washington, Pentagon spokesman Capt. Jeff Davis would not offer a timeline for Mosul’s recapture, but he did note that Iraqi forces had retaken over 1,500 square miles of territory from Islamic State control.

Iraqi forces had closed in on a key provincial government complex in the Dawasa enclave of western Mosul on Monday, with the Interior Ministry’s Rapid Response units and Iraqi Federal Police taking the provincial police headquarters and court building, Reuters reported.

Iraqi forces also reportedly secured the second of five bridges spanning the Tigris River that connect eastern and western Mosul. Although all five bridges were destroyed by coalition airstrikes early in the campaign, maintaining control of those bridges on the city’s western banks provides security for advancing Iraqi forces driving into Mosul’s city center.

The western Mosul offensive had been delayed for several days because of inclement weather, which prevented American and coalition fighters and surveillance aircraft from providing support to ground forces. But the coalition’s progress through the western half of Mosul has been relatively swift since operations began late last month.

Stiff resistance

Despite such progress, ground commanders still are confronting stiff resistance by Islamic State cells dug into western Mosul’s bombed-out neighborhoods. Coalition fighters have been met with waves of suicide bombings, sniper and mortar fire and commercial drones armed with grenades and artillery shells. One Iraqi Federal Police unit was swarmed with six suicide car bombs as it moved through Dawasa toward the provincial government complex, Maj. Gen. Haider al-Maturi of the Federal Police Commandos Division told The Associated Press on Sunday.

In Dawasa, as well as Shuhada and Mansour neighborhoods in the city’s southwest, Iraqi military and police are battling the Islamic State street by street, block by block. Iraqi forces are trying to clear nests of Islamic State snipers and mortar pits dug into civilian homes and buildings across western Mosul, Iraqi special forces Maj. Ali Talib told the AP.

Iraqi commanders are bracing for the most difficult fight of the campaign as coalition forces move toward the old city district of Mosul. The ancient city sector is home to the Mosul’s Grand Nuri Mosque, where Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi notoriously announced the group’s “caliphate” after overrunning Mosul and most of northern Iraq in mid-2014. At the time, units of the regular Iraqi army broke and ran in the face of an advance from a much smaller Islamic State contingent.

Among the top concerns among U.S. and coalition commanders is the possible use of chemical weapons against advancing Iraqi troops.

Islamic State fighters reportedly deployed mustard gas against Iraqi forces and civilians in western Mosul last week, NBC News reported. Islamic State rockets laden with the chemical weapon were fired from the western Mosul, striking the Al-Zuhur and Al-Mishraq neighborhoods in the eastern portion of the city.

Officials from the International Committee of the Red Cross said 15 civilians had been treated for exposure to toxic chemical agents over the past week.

“It was certainly [the result of] a toxic chemical agent, because their symptoms were absolutely clear. People had blisters, they vomited. They had irritation in the eyes and coughed,” Iolanda Jaquemet, an ICRC spokeswoman, told NBC.

The World Health Organization issued a statement last week over the possible use of chemical weapons in Mosul, saying international aid groups and local health organizations have “activated an emergency response plan” to treat victims of chemical attacks.

“WHO is extremely alarmed by the use of chemical weapons in Mosul, where innocent civilians are already facing unimaginable suffering as a result of the ongoing conflict,” according to the statement, which noted that the use of such weapons is a clear violation of the international rules of war.

In September, American commanders suspected U.S. and Iraqi forces had been hit with a chemical strike. The attack, which took place near the main American military logistics hub at Qayyara airfield, was supposedly the first use of mustard gas against U.S. troops since World War I.

At the time, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joseph Dunford told Congress that U.S. forces had been the target of a “mustard blister agent” attack.

Initial tests of two mortar rounds that struck near U.S. positions in Qayyara, about 40 miles south of Mosul, showed evidence of a chemical agent akin to mustard gas, the Pentagon said at the time. However, subsequent tests for mustard gas agents on one of the two mortar rounds proved inconclusive.

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