WASHINGTON — American military officials and their Iraqi counterparts have developed a detailed battle plan to recapture Iraq’s second largest city, and a brutal urban fight could kick off as early as April, according to U.S. Central Command.
Mosul fell to Islamic State militants last year as they swept across the country and routed much of the Iraqi army that the U.S. helped train during the Iraq War.
The “main attack force” that will try to retake the city will consist of five Iraqi army brigades, according to a CENTCOM official, who agreed to outline the battle plan for reporters on condition of anonymity. The rest of the force involved in the operation will include:
- Three Kurdish peshmerga brigades that will help contain the Islamic State forces from the north of the city and isolate them from the west.
- A “Mosul fighting force” which will be comprised largely of police and tribal forces as well as a brigade of counterterrorism forces.
- A reserve force of three smaller brigades.
In total, approximately 20,000 to 25,000 Iraqi troops and associated forces will be involved in the fight, according to the official.
U.S. military officials want the Iraqis to launch the operation in April or May.
“We want them to go in that time frame, because as you get into Ramadan and the summer and the heat, it becomes problematic if it goes much later than that,” the official said. “The shaping for Mosul and the isolation of Mosul is going on now. The preparation for the forces that will participate in Mosul is ongoing right now.”
The Iraqis have identified the specific units that will take part in the attack, but the official declined to name them.
Although things are moving forward, the official acknowledged that much remains to be done before the attack can happen.
The U.S. and its coalition partners still have to train and equip the five Iraqi brigades that will constitute the main attack force. That process normally takes four to six weeks once they are in the training pipeline, according to the official. Then, the forces will have to be postured and positioned correctly before they move in.
The attack on Mosul will be postponed if it looks as though the Iraqis aren’t up to the task.
“If they’re not ready, if the conditions are not set, if all the equipment that they need is not physically there and they are [not] trained to a degree in which they will be successful, we have not closed the door on continuing to slide that [timeline] to the right,” the official said, but “they are moving forward as if they will execute in the [April-May] timeframe.”
Although there is no intention of committing large numbers of U.S. ground forces to the fight, CENTCOM will assist with equipment, logistics, air support, and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, according to the official.
A more risky option under consideration is sending in American special operators to call in airstrikes to aid the Iraqi army.
“It’s a matter of whether we take it one level higher and we actually accompany with [special operations forces] and [joint tactical air controller] teams to provide just a little bit more precise fires,” the official said. “We are looking at all the things that are out there, [such as] what is the final enemy disposition in Mosul, how precise will the fires need to be in relationship to the forward line of troops… and those types of things.”
The official said that military leaders will weigh those issues, but the ultimate decision about sending in forward air controllers will be made by President Barack Obama, the commander-in-chief.
When asked why CENTCOM had agreed to reveal so many details of the campaign plan to reporters, the official said that the command wanted to demonstrate “the level of commitment that [the Iraqis] have to this and the significance of this upcoming operation.”
Officials estimate that the Islamic State has 1,000 to 2,000 fighters in Mosul, and they have had plenty of time to build up their defenses.
“Mosul will not be easy,” another CENTCOM official told reporters. “It’s going to be a difficult fight.”