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US-backed forces near ISIS-held Tal Afar

By CHAD GARLAND | STARS AND STRIPES Published: August 21, 2017

IRBIL, Iraq — Iraqi forces are closing in on the Islamic State-held town of Tal Afar, west of Mosul, the U.S.-led coalition said Monday, but they have not yet pushed into the town itself, which some commanders are calling a “microcosm” of Mosul where resistance will be stronger.

Though the militants lost in Mosul, they’re expected to incorporate lethal lessons learned there in defense of the town, which is about 90 miles from the Syrian border and one of the last pockets in Iraq controlled by the jihadi group.

The operation to retake Tal Afar began Sunday, and the Iraqis had retaken about 90 square miles outside the town, mostly in the city’s east and southwest, within the first 24 hours, said Army Col. Ryan Dillon, a coalition spokesman.

ISIS has put up some resistance outside the town, but the forces are expected to fall back to the urban center, where they will mount their main defense and slow the pace of the Iraqi advance.

“Similarly to Raqqa and Mosul, we have seen ISIS really defend — the core of their defenses, where it emanates — is going to be from these urban centers,” Dillon said.

Officials expect Tal Afar to be less of a challenge than Mosul, but some say it won’t be easy. As in Mosul and outlying villages, Iraqi forces are expected to face a dug-in enemy with many car bombs hidden in buildings throughout the town, Army Maj. Gen. Robert White, a coalition commander in Iraq, said earlier this month.

White said he expects ISIS’ battle-hardened fighters to make deadly adjustments to their defensive tactics, drawing on the successes they had in bogging down Iraqi forces in the nine-month battle for Iraq’s second-largest city.

“You will see pretty much the same thing you saw in Mosul,” White said. “The nuances that may occur … would be a slight tweak on how they (ISIS) employ both their indirect fires and their direct fires inside an urban terrain.”

ISIS fighters in Mosul used berms to slow the Iraqi advance. As government forces approached, they fired mortars and artillery, and as the troops closed on their positions, they unleashed hidden suicide car bombs against tanks and armored vehicles.

The Iraqis know those tactics and have adapted to them, White said, but they will need to be prepared for ISIS to try new ways to draw them into urban traps.

“That ranges from a sniper to a three-man enemy team that has rifles and automatic rifles, to try to draw the Iraqis into an engagement area,” he said.

The Iraqis learned in Mosul to use small drones to help them avoid walking into ambushes. Advancing troops were supported by the U.S.-led coalition with intelligence, combat advising and precision strikes.

All branches of the Iraqi Security Forces are participating in the operation, officials have said. Coalition advisers are nearby, alongside Iraqi commanders, Dillon said, “just like we’ve been with them in east Mosul, west Mosul, Ramadi (and) Fallujah.” He declined to give the number of advisers moving with Iraqi units.

Tal Afar was a stronghold of anti-American resistance after the 2003 invasion of that country. It was where current National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster developed the highly effective counterinsurgency strategy that became a model for Gen. David Petraeus’ subsequent “surge,” whose success led to the withdrawal of most U.S. forces in 2011.

ISIS also is being squeezed in neighboring Syria, where U.S.-backed forces are inching into Raqqa, the group’s de facto capital. Meanwhile, Syrian government troops are advancing steadily toward the city of Deir el-Zour, ISIS’ final stronghold near the Iraqi border.

While Iraqi officials were at times overly optimistic about the Mosul battle, their confidence about the coming fight in Tal Afar may be somewhat justified. Conditions there may make for a less grinding battle.

An estimated 2,000 fighters occupy the town, compared with more than 10,000 in Mosul. As many as 50,000 civilians are believed to remain in Tal Afar — far fewer than the hundreds of thousands in Mosul. ISIS fighters used them as human shields to complicate coalition strikes and slow Iraqi advances.

Mosul was one of recent history’s most complex battles, White said, but he expects the Iraqis will now be able to carry on many simultaneous campaigns. White recently took command of the coalition’s land component in Iraq, with the goal of ensuring the Iraqis have the leadership and force structure to win on several fronts.

ISIS has lost about 70 percent of the territory it held in Iraq in August 2014. But along with Tal Afar, it still controls the town of Hawija, west of Kirkuk, and the towns of Qaim, Rawa and Ana in western Iraq on the Syrian border.

The ISIS-held urban areas are about one-quarter the size of Mosul, White said. They’re less densely packed and feature fewer multistory buildings, which should mean a less grueling fight.

And despite learning some new tricks, he said of ISIS, “they only have so much capability.”

garland.chad@stripes.com Twitter: @chadgarland

U.S. Army Maj. Gen. Robert White, commanding general of Combined Joint Forces Land Component Command-Operation Inherent Resolve, (left), arrives at the Besmaya Range Complex, Iraq, July 17, 2017.
TRACY MCKITHERN/U.S. ARMY

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