The Iraqi offensive to retake Mosul from Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant terrorists is on or ahead of schedule, but the fight itself will take months, Combined Joint Task Force Operation Inherent Resolve officials said.
Officials spoke on background as they accompanied Marine Corps Gen. Joe Dunford, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, on his trip to the region.
Iraqi forces are approaching the city from the east, northeast and south, officials said. They are led by Iraqi Counterterrorism Service troops acting as elite light infantry.
Also with the Iraqi forces are regular Iraqi army divisions, Kurdish peshmerga and Shia militia. They are all working together under the direction of Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi, the officials said.
There is some friction, said an official, but “the Kurds and Iraqi government said this is the closest they have ever worked together.” All factions in Iraq have a common enemy in ISIL and the Mosul offensive shows they can work together, the official said.
Still, there are tensions. Sunni populations in and around Mosul are worried that the Shia-dominated Popular Mobilization Forces may try to exact revenge for ISIL murders of Shia, the officials said.
Iraqi forces are closing with the city proper, but ISIL has had two years to fortify the region. The officials estimate there are between 3,000 and 5,000 ISIL fighters in and around Mosul.
Outside the city, ISIL “bermed” some villages and towns and left others alone. “It is rather haphazard,” one of the officials said.
ISIL exhibits little unity of command and part of that may be because the average life span of a ISIL commander in Mosul is less than two weeks, the officials said. Trench lines do not connect with other lines, and there is no central plan.
“One guy carved his name out of trenches in a field,” a planner said. “We don’t know why.”
INTO THE CITY
The counterterrorism forces have broken into the city on the eastern side, the officials said. Iraqi forces are within two miles of the city to the north and a bit more than that to the south. Outside the city, Iraqi forces are seeing more stand-off weapons, they said, while inside the city, ISIL is using direct fire, improvised explosive devices and mobility against the Iraqi liberators.
ISIL moves through tunnels and knocked-out walls between houses to gain an element of surprise, and a small number of fighters can hold up a far larger force. “Their strategy is just to ‘attrit’ and slow attacking forces,” the officials said. Iraqi forces have so far destroyed 73 tunnels.
Vehicle bombs are the weapon of choice for ISIL inside the city. Officials said there are car bomb factories in Mosul, and ISIL is quite skilled at armoring the driver’s compartments. Those vehicles are armored well enough to make it difficult to knock out without an anti-tank weapon, officials noted.
Intelligence officials estimate ISIL has fewer than a thousand foreign fighters inside the city itself, but they are considered the terror group’s best troops.
City combat can be devastating, officials said, and there are between 700,000 and 1.2 million civilians in the city. “There is some number of people who want to leave Mosul, but ISIL won’t let them,” an official said. “In fact, ISIL has closed its border with Syria so people don’t escape Mosul.”
Iraqi forces are following their doctrine as they clear the city. Essentially, troops move through, set a forward battle line and then “back-clear” through the area. “It is not the way U.S. troops would do it but it works for them,” the official said. “We’re here supporting the Iraqis, so they are fighting in their style. We are advising and assisting, but they are still using their doctrine techniques.”
Close air support from both manned and unmanned aircraft and tube and rocket artillery are providing a powerful punch for Iraqi forces, officials said.
Mosul is the fight today, but Inherent Resolve officials said they are looking beyond this battle. “It’s not just the day after Mosul or the day after Raqqa, it’s about keeping the pressure on (ISIL) to truly eliminate it so it doesn’t just reconstitute under another name and threaten Europe and the United States again,” an official said.
“Iraq is fighting its biggest battle of this war,” the official continued. “The fight in Mosul is a huge undertaking. We’re helping with that, but we continue to look for ways to keep up the pressure and militarily defeat (ISIL).”