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Islamic State is expected to fall back, wage urban warfare in Mosul

By TRAVIS J. TRITTEN | STARS AND STRIPES Published: October 21, 2016

WASHINGTON – The Islamic State group is expected to fall back from its outer perimeter defenses in Mosul and wage what could be brutal urban combat inside the city of about 1.5 million people, a U.S. military official said Friday.

That could mean street-by-street fighting for U.S.-backed Iraqi and Kurdish troops as the extremist group employs snipers, human shields and chemical weapons, the official said. The group showed another element of its strategy – distraction – with a suicide assault Friday in Kirkuk about 100 miles to the southeast.

The battle to retake Mosul, which has already claimed the life of a U.S. sailor, is only beginning and could take weeks or months. About 4,800 U.S. troops including embedded special operators are backing about 30,000 Iraqi and Kurdish forces who this week launched the offensive, which is the biggest operation yet against the Islamic State group.

Chief Petty Officer Jason C. Finan, 34, of Anaheim, California, who was with Iraqi forces northeast of Mosul, died Wednesday after his vehicle was hit by an improvised explosive device, becoming the first casualty among the U.S. troops working on the front lines.

The fighting is likely to get much tougher as it shifts to the city’s urban center, said the military official, who requested anonymity to speak candidly about the situation unfolding in Iraq.

The Islamic State group, which has lost the cities of Ramadi and Fallujah, has shown it is more likely to cede territory than suffer loses on the battlefield, meaning it will likely retreat back into the city as the U.S.-forces bear down, the official said.

In a replay of the other recent battles, the group could use the terrain and traffic obstacles to slow down any advance by joint forces. It took the Iraqis eight months of urban fighting to reclaim Ramadi in central Iraq from the Islamic State group earlier this year.

Once inside the city, the Iraqis, Kurds and any embedded U.S. troops face the potential of snipers, suicide attacks and crude chemical weapons. The Islamic State group has already used mustard gas and chlorine chemical bombs that are often ineffective but can be dangerous in close quarters, the military official said.

Enemy drones could also stalk the joint force. Earlier this month, the Islamic State group waged what might have been its first drone attack. The explosive-laden aircraft hit Iraqi and French forces.

However, the terrorist group appears to be using drone parts that could be purchased at a hobby shop and its capabilities are still incredibly primitive compared to U.S. drones, the military official told Stars and Stripes.

The joint offensive on Friday was focused on the Islamic State group’s ring of military defenses on the outskirts of Mosul, where the United States anticipates mortar and rocket fire as well as vehicle-borne bombs.

Only about 3,000-5,000 Islamic State fighters are estimated to be defending the city – Iraq’s second largest. Most of them are thought to be Iraqis, including local Sunnis who joined the group anticipating its victory, and about 1,000 could be foreign fighters who came to join the Islamic State group’s proclaimed holy war.

The military official told Stars and Stripes that they are uncertain how a relatively small group has been able to occupy and continue to impose an extreme version of Islamic law on such a large city. It has released videos of executions in the city meant for propaganda and to maintain its control.

There were some indications of a grass-roots resistance developing in Mosul, the official said.

On Friday, few of Mosul’s civilians had fled the city, the official said, leaving the possibility they could be trapped by the battle or used as human shields by Islamic State fighters. The United Nations warned the terrorist group took 550 families from surrounding villages and might be keeping them close to discourage joint U.S. airstrikes or other attacks.

The Islamic State group could also use Mosul schools and hospitals to run military operations, a tactic it has used in the past and one that could further endanger city residents.

tritten.travis@stripes.com
Twitter: @Travis_Tritten
  

Iraqi special forces forces raise an Iraqi flag after retaking Bartella, outside Mosul, Friday, Oct. 21, 2016. Iraqi and Kurdish forces backed by a U.S.-led coalition launched a multi-pronged assault this week to retake Mosul and surrounding areas from Islamic State militants.
KHALID MOHAMMED/AP

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