Formidable challenges await Iraqis as they move against ISIL in Mosul

Iraqi and Kurdish forces encountered moderate resistance from Islamic State fighters but achieved their objectives on the first day of a massive operation to clear the militants from Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, U.S. defense officials said Monday. The forces have not yet reached the inside of the city, where they will face formidable defenses, including […]

Iraqi and Kurdish forces encountered moderate resistance from Islamic State fighters but achieved their objectives on the first day of a massive operation to clear the militants from Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, U.S. defense officials said Monday.

The forces have not yet reached the inside of the city, where they will face formidable defenses, including deadly booby traps and hardened fighters who can seek cover in tunnel complexes and fight from buildings and alleys. Several thousand militants are attempting to defend the city, according to the Pentagon.

The Mosul offensive is the largest and most complex operation launched by Iraqi forces since Islamic State militants swept into their country two years ago. It is also fraught with potential dangers.

The long-awaited operation was launched at dawn Monday. Iraqi forces “encountered significant small arms and indirect fire,” such as rockets and mortars, Air Force Col. John Dorrian, a military spokesman in Baghdad, said Monday.

The initial resistance did not stop Iraqi and Kurdish forces, who seized towns and villages and moved closer to the edge of the city. Kurdish forces said they had cleared nine villages and extended control of the road between Irbil and Mosul in the first day of fighting.

“Day One so far has gone according to plan,” Pentagon Press Secretary Peter Cooksaid.

At the core of the offensive are 12 U.S.-trained Iraqi and Kurdish brigades, numbering about 30,000 troops. The conventional forces are part of a larger, more diverse force, including Shiite militias, Sunni tribal and self-defense units, police commandos and elite counterterrorism units.

“I’m not sure they’ve shown the capability to command something this complex,” said Michael Barbero, a retired Army lieutenant general who served three tours in Iraq. “We’ll see.”

Iraqi and Kurdish conventional units will seize the outside of the city, allowing counterterrorism forces and commandos to enter and engage in close fighting to clear the militants from the city center.

The counterterrorism forces have moved north of the city in Kurdish controlled regions, according to a report by the Institute for the Study of War. Those forces are experienced in urban fighting and played a prominent role this year in driving militants from other cities, including Fallujah and Ramadi.

Getting commandos into the city will be tough. Breaching the elaborate defenses, such as improvised explosives, will be difficult, especially as Iraqi forces will likely come under fire as they enter.

The United States is assisting with advisers at Iraqi brigade headquarters, generally away from direct combat, and with airstrikes that have weakened Islamic State fighters inside the city. In the past month, the U.S.-led coalition has conducted about 70 airstrikes around the city.

As the fighting intensifies key decisions will be made by junior leaders in the middle of the fight with little American assistance. Airstrikes become more difficult as the Iraqis close in on the militants in a city packed with a civilian population estimated at more than 1 million.

Iraqi forces appear to be attacking from multiple directions. “The strategy is to surprise (the Islamic State) from every direction,” said Ismael Alsodani, a retired Iraqi brigadier general who served as a military attaché in Washington.

Iraq’s government said Shiite militias and Kurdish forces participating in the offensive will remain outside the city to avoid igniting sectarian tensions inside Mosul, which is a predominantly Sunni city that also once had Kurdish, Christian and other ethnic and religious communities.

Sunni tribal forces and local police from the area are expected to enter Mosul soon after it is cleared to provide security in the hopes that security forces from the community will be supported by residents.

“The military challenge is going to be huge, but the humanitarian and political challenges will be just as formidable,” Barbero said.

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