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US aircraft to block Islamic State militants fleeing Mosul in Iraq

Air Force Lt. Gen. Jeffrey Harrigian, front left, the commander of U.S. Air Forces Central Command, talks with a Marine Corps officer during a visit to an undisclosed location in August, 2016. Harrigian said Monday, Oct. 31, that coalition forces have plans to use air assets to target Islamic State forces if they try to escape Mosul, as Iraqi ground troops attack the city.

DONALD HOLBERT/U.S. MARINE CORPS

By JIM MICHAELS | USA Today (Tribune News Service) | Published: November 1, 2016

The U.S.-led coalition has developed plans to target Islamic State militants from the air if they attempt to escape the Iraqi city of Mosul and head west toward Syria, as Iraqi ground forces close in on the city from several sides, a top U.S. general said Monday.

“This is all about getting after (the Islamic State) and setting up an opportunity where, should they try to escape, we have a built-in mechanism to kill them as they are departing,” said Lt. Gen. Jeffrey Harrigian, commander of U.S. air forces in the Middle East.

Blocking militants from escaping has been a key challenge as U.S.-backed Iraqi and Syrian ground forces have retaken towns and cities from the Islamic State. Hundreds of militants have managed to slip away.

The Pentagon has acknowledged there is no simple solution to prevent militants from grabbing civilian hostages or simply escaping in small numbers.

But the coalition is beefing up surveillance, and Iraq's government is encouraging civilians to stay put and avoid trying to flee, lessening the likelihood they will be grabbed as human shields.

Islamic State fighters have typically attempted to inflict heavy casualties on Iraqi and Syrian opposition forces before abandoning their positions and escaping.

In the Mosul campaign, Harrigian said military planners are focused on the western approaches of the city, which are not as well defended as the other sides. He spoke to USA TODAY in a telephone interview from his headquarters in Qatar.

“We’re very much focused there,” Harrigian said of the western routes. “Should they come out that direction, we’re prepared to get after them.”

The western approaches are not completely open. Shiite militias are moving into positions there and have said they will drive the Islamic State from Tal Afar, a town west of Mosul on the road to Raqqa, Syria, the de facto capital for the militant group. The militias could act as a screening force to capture the Islamic State fighters if they attempt to head toward Raqqa.

But the Shiite militias present a political problem. The U.S.-led coalition said it would only support forces under control of the Iraqi central government. Many Shiite militias are influenced or controlled by Iran.

Plans for the Mosul offensive, which began Oct. 17, included a route to allow civilians to escape from the city and avoid its total destruction in case the Islamic State has nowhere to turn and tries to make a last stand.

“They don’t want to besiege the city and prevent civilians from escaping,” said Jennifer Cafarella, an analyst at the Institute for the Study of War.

Such a plan also runs the risk of allowing some militants to escape to Raqqa. The Pentagon has said Raqqa is the next objective in the campaign against the Islamic State.

The coalition has between 15 and 20 surveillance drones constantly watching Mosul and the surrounding areas, triple the number over the city in the weeks leading up to the offensive, Harrigian said.

The Islamic State has frequently used human shields to avoid coalition airstrikes. Militants were able to escape from Manbij, Syria, in August with hundreds of human shields. Coalition aircraft will not target militants if there is a danger of killing civilians.

By contrast in Fallujah, a Sunni city in western Iraq, coalition aircraft killed hundreds of militants in June when they attempted to escape the city hastily. After hours of surveillance, coalition commanders determined there were no civilians in the convoy.

The Pentagon has said it has seen no signs that militants are attempting to escape Mosul yet in significant numbers. But that could change as Iraqi forces enter the city, and if militants believe defeat there is inevitable.

On Monday, Iraqi and Kurdish forces were nearing the edges of Mosul, where fighting will grow more intense as both sides engage in combat amid narrow streets and alleys. The city holds an estimated 1 million civilians and between 3,500 and 5,000 fighters, the Pentagon has said.

The Islamic State, which is also known as ISIS or ISIL, has established deadly networks of tunnels and obstacles inside the city. Coalition aircraft have destroyed 55 tunnels and 33 car or truck bombs during the offensive.

©2016 USA Today
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