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Officials: Progress in first week of Mosul battle, fighting to intensify

Ibrahim Hussein, 23, a peshmerga soldier near a tunnel leading to the underground hideout of an Islamic State leader reportedly killed in Shakoli during the Mosul offensive on Oct. 20, 2016. The tunnel was outfitted with extremist graffiti, electricity, appliances, stockpiles of food and, potentially, booby-traps.

MOLLY HENNESSY-FISKE, LOS ANGELES TIMES/TNS

By COREY DICKSTEIN | STARS AND STRIPES Published: October 24, 2016

WASHINGTON — Iraqi and peshmerga forces have reclaimed about 800 square miles of territory around Mosul during the first week of an operation to expel the Islamic State group from its final urban stronghold in the country, U.S. officials said Monday.

Despite progress since the assault on outlying villages around the northern Iraqi city began Oct. 17, the officials cautioned Mosul’s fall would take time and the fighting would likely grow tougher.

“It’s going to take a while,” said Navy Capt. Jeff Davis, a Pentagon spokesman. “This is going to be difficult, especially once we get forces into the city.”

By Monday, some Iraqi security forces had pushed within about 10 miles of Mosul’s eastern city limit, Davis said. Those forces were working to clear the village of Bartella after fighting Islamic State militants there.

It remains unclear when Iraqi forces would actually reach the city, several U.S. officials said Monday. The officials briefed reporters at the Pentagon on the battle for Mosul on the condition of anonymity.

Those U.S. officials said some peshmerga forces were within 20 miles of Mosul’s city center in some areas, however those forces are expected to remain outside of the city, according to the Iraqi government’s operational plan. Iraq’s elite special and conventional forces are expected to assault and clear the city.

The Pentagon’s assessment was markedly different from Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump’s. The candidate tweeted that the Mosul offensive “is turning out to be a total disaster” and criticized U.S. officials for giving IS “months of notice” of the attack.

“ U.S. is looking so dumb,” Trump said.

Most of the about 30,000 Iraqi security forces and peshmerga forces moving toward Mosul from the south, east and north remain 40 to 80 miles away, the officials said. They’ve faced strong resistance in some areas, primarily from suicide bombing attacks and improvised explosive devices.

An IED killed Navy Chief Petty Officer Jason C. Finan on Oct. 20, the lone American death in the operation so far.

The U.S. officials said when the ground forces reach the city they will likely face a heavy urban fight from what remains of the 3,000 to 5,000 Islamic State fighters defending the city. They said it was unclear Monday whether the terrorist group will send additional fighters to help defend Mosul. Davis said the Islamic State group still controls routes into the city from Syria to the west.

The United States has observed some Islamic State fighters – primarily mid-level commanders and Iraqi natives – fleeing the city into Syria, the officials said. It remains unclear whether those fighters were deserting the group or being moved to other locations for tactical purposes, they said. Most of the fighters remaining in Mosul were likely foreign fighters who are expected to fight to their deaths, the officials said.

In the meantime, the U.S.-led Operation Inherent Resolve air campaign has been busier than at any other point since it began attacking the Islamic State group in July 2014, about a month after the terrorists seized Mosul.

The coalition has dropped more bombs on the terrorist group since Oct. 17 than during any other week of the campaign, Brett McGurk, President Barack Obama’s special envoy to the coalition, said Monday.

The coalition launched 1,776 bombs, rockets and artillery rounds in more than 30 strikes at Islamic State targets in and around Mosul during the campaign’s first seven days, Air Force Col. John Dorrian, spokesman for the OIR coalition, told NBC News on Monday. He said the attacks killed hundreds of enemy fighters, destroyed 136 fighting positions, 26 car or truck bombs, 60 artillery pieces and mortars and 18 tunnels.

The Islamic State group over the weekend launched attacks in other locations around Iraq that were meant to distract the coalition from its mission in Mosul, Davis said. Attacks in Rutba, in Anbar Province west of the capital Baghdad, and in Kirkuk, about 100 miles southeast of Mosul, were largely repelled, he said. The terrorist group on Monday launched another such attack on Sinjar, about 80 miles west of Mosul. Davis said the Pentagon did not have information Monday afternoon about the status of that attack.

But those attacks have not impacted the Mosul operation, Davis said. The battle for Mosul would likely last weeks or even months, but the outcome is inevitable, he said.

“Everything is in favor of the coalition defeating [the Islamic State group] in Mosul,” Davis said. “They are a much smaller and vastly inferior force.”

dickstein.corey@stripes.com
Twitter: @CDicksteinDC

 

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