A convoy of Iraqi Special Forces troops moves through the Cahra neighborhood of Mosul on Nov. 12, 2016.

A convoy of Iraqi Special Forces troops moves through the Cahra neighborhood of Mosul on Nov. 12, 2016. (Carolyn Cole, Los Angeles Times/TNS)

WASHINGTON — Truck bombs, the Islamic State group’s signature battlefield tactic, have become less effective on the advancing Iraqi security forces as they slowly wrest Mosul from the terrorist group, a top U.S. commander said Wednesday.

Attacks from suicide vehicle-borne bombs were successful about 50 percent of the time in the initial six weeks of the Mosul offensive launched in mid-October, said Army Col. Brett G. Sylvia, the commander of the U.S. troops advising Iraqi security forces. That percentage has fallen severely in recent weeks, he said.

Only about 11 percent of vehicle-bomb attacks successfully killed or injured Iraqi troops or damaged their vehicles or equipment in December, Sylvia said. In January, about 17 percent of such attacks have been successful, he said, attributing the increase to more combat.

“This is definitely a significant win for us,” Sylvia told reporters at the Pentagon. “Even the [truck bombs] that do have some effectiveness, that relative effectiveness has been less in terms of the number of casualties or the amount of equipment being damaged.”

Iraqi forces have now cleared about 70 to 80 percent of eastern Mosul and are advancing toward the city’s center, which is bisected by the Tigris River, Sylvia said. The U.S.-backed forces could soon cross the river and enter the city’s western section, he said, but he declined to provide a specific estimate of when that could occur. Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, is the Islamic State group’s final urban stronghold in Iraq. The terrorists have held it since July 2014.

Sylvia credited improved Iraqi tactics for more effective defense against the truck-bomb attacks. Iraqi security forces have been provided more anti-tank weapons, which they have regularly used to destroy the explosive-laden vehicles before they can reach their targets. They have also adopted simple “counter-mobility measures,” such as road spikes, to slow their advance. The U.S.-led Operation Inherent Resolve coalition has also helped slow truck bomb effectiveness by targeting the weapons or creating craters in roads with explosives to deny them the ability to ram into convoys.

U.S. officials said recently that the coalition has destroyed more than 130 truck bombs since October. Precision-guided weapons can destroy a vehicle bomb from the air or with an artillery strike, Sylvia said, though he could not say how many truck bombs have attacked Iraqi forces since the start of the battle for Mosul.

It appears the Islamic State group, which has been estimated to have between 3,000 and 5,000 fighters in and around Mosul, could be running out of supplies for its favored weapon. Sylvia said Iraqi troops have faced fewer truck bombs as the militants’ have ceded ground in the city.

The Iraqis once reported 10 or more such attacks each day, but have rarely reported more than two or three in recent weeks, he said. Most of the truck bombs deployed recently have been cruder in design than ones launched in the early days of the battle, which were often wrapped in armor.

It is not clear whether the terrorist group will increase the use of vehicle bombs once Iraqi forces enter the western portion of the city. Sylvia said he expected the Iraqis to face a brutal battle again on the other side of the Tigris, where the terrorists have set up a more extensive network of defenses.

“The fight’s not over,” he said. “There is a lot of fighting left to do in western Mosul … but the Iraqi security forces have rapidly improved and they are prepared for this urban fight.” Twitter: @CDicksteinDC

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Corey Dickstein covers the military in the U.S. southeast. He joined the Stars and Stripes staff in 2015 and covered the Pentagon for more than five years. He previously covered the military for the Savannah Morning News in Georgia. Dickstein holds a journalism degree from Georgia College & State University and has been recognized with several national and regional awards for his reporting and photography. He is based in Atlanta.

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