PENTAGON — More than 100 American troops are accompanying Iraqi and Kurdish peshmerga forces in their push to take back the city of Mosul from Islamic State forces.
Pentagon spokesman Navy Capt. Jeff Davis told reporters Tuesday the Americans are assisting about 10,000 Kurds, 18,000 Iraqi Security Forces and another couple thousand Iraqi police as they face an Islamic State force that has been hunkered down in the second-largest Iraqi city for more than two years.
Estimates of IS fighters in Mosul range from about 3,000 to 5,000 fighters, but U.S. officials say Mosul is home to greater skilled IS fighters who are more dedicated to the fight and more ideologically zealous.
Davis said the more than 100 U.S. forces are embedded with Iraqi Security Forces at the division headquarters level. They also are embedded with Kurdish and Iraqi counter-terrorism commandos at levels considered below the division level.
U.S. officials have stressed that embedded American forces will remain with Iraqi and peshmerga counterparts who are involved in coordinating and decision making, rather than at the frontlines of combat. But U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter has said U.S. troops are still in harm’s way.
Iraqi and Kurdish forces say they have retaken a dozen villages outside Mosul, and Davis said there are four major points from which the offensive is pushing into the city. Kurdish peshmerga units are advancing on Kurdish villages from two points east of Mosul, with Iraqi Security Forces following behind. ISF forces are advancing from the north from the Qayarrah West base, and another ISF team is pushing into Mosul from the southeast.
Much of the west is still controlled by Islamic State, prompting U.S. officials to suggest that the IS leadership may look to flee west to Raqqah should Mosul start to fall. These officials say they have so far seen some IS family members flee west, but they have not seen foreign fighters coming in or out of the city recently.
The long-awaited offensive, backed by airstrikes from a U.S.-led coalition and involving Sunni tribal forces and Shiite militias, remains on the outskirts of Mosul.
IS fighters have burned tires and oil to obscure their movements, but officials say the tactic hasn’t degraded air support by the coalition, which carried out four strikes against IS forces in and around Mosul on Monday.
President Barack Obama, speaking Tuesday in Washington, said Mosul will be a “difficult fight,” but he expressed confidence that IS will be defeated in the city. “Perhaps a million civilians are still living there, so in addition to rooting out ISIL, our focus jointly is on the safety and humanitarian aid for civilians who are escaping the fight. That’s going to be a top priority for both our governments,” he added, using an acronym for Islamic State.
East of Mosul, the Kurdish peshmerga forces advanced quickly, with U.S. officials saying Tuesday that the Kurds had seen less resistance than anticipated.
Iraqi armed forces to the city’s south have been making slower progress because they have more ground to cover, having begun their operations 40 kilometers from the edge of Mosul.
On the first day of the offensive, Iraqi regulars along with Shiite militiamen overran three villages. Their target Tuesday is the village of Zawiya.
This U.N. map shows expected paths of escape from Mosul
Kurdish President Masoud Barzani has declared that “Mosul will be liberated,” adding that his fighters are doing their best to keep the city from becoming like war-battered Aleppo in Syria.
Iraqi officials say there will be no sustained airstrikes on the city center to avoid high casualties among the more than 1 million civilians still in the city.
This is the largest and most complex military operation in Iraq since U.S. combat forces left the country five years ago. It will involve Iraqi-led troops, Kurdish peshmerga, Iraqi police, and Sunni and Shiite militias. However, it is raising concerns about the safety of hundreds of thousands of civilians in the area, and aid agencies are warning of a likely humanitarian crisis.
‘Ahead of schedule’
A spokesman for the U.S.-led coalition said Tuesday the operation is “on or ahead of schedule,” and that the militants are not able to stop the Iraqi and Kurdish forces with small arms and improvised explosives.
While they can’t stop the advances, they can slow them. Movement forward by all coalition forces is methodical, with commanders opting for caution as they come under mortar and sniper fire. On the southern front, Iraqi troops are moving painstakingly into the village of Abbas, which is larger than most of its neighbors. Pockets of IS militants have been mounting lightning attacks. Iraqi troops are also fearful of improvised bombs, which have been planted in the main thoroughfares.
In the east, there were conflicting reports about why some Kurdish peshmerga appeared to have paused their advance Tuesday. Some Kurdish commanders said they had done so to allow Iraqi forces, who are earmarked to enter the city, to move forward. Others said they were in the process of re-ordering their own units.
Spokesman Davis said that pauses would need to occur throughout the fight so that anti-IS forces could conduct clearing operations or wait for logistics.
“It would be absolutely crazy to suggest on day two that we’re stalled already,” Davis said.
Peshmerga commander Bakhtyar Sadeeq told VOA: “There is no halt in our operation. The peshmerga forces paused moving forward because we coordinate with the Iraqi military. We have achieved our goal in the first day. Now the Iraqi army will take it from there. In fact, Iraqi troops have made significant advances today.”[xyz-ihs snippet=”adsense-body-ad”]There have been several reports of IS suicide bombers driving cars packed with explosives at their foes. Soon after the peshmerga offensive began early Monday with Kurdish troops moving over dirt mounds marking the frontline between them and IS fighters on the eastern or Khazir front, IS offered stiff resistance, trying to strike back with mortar fire and car bombs. Two cars driving at the Peshmerga were destroyed by airstrikes, but another managed to get close to the Kurds before being detonated, according to commanders.
Long fight expected
U.S. Gen. Stephen Townsend, the coalition’s ground commander in Iraq, tamped down expectations of a quick victory at Mosul. “This may prove to be a long and tough battle, but the Iraqis have prepared for it and we will stand by them,” he said.
The peshmerga Chief of General Staff, Jamal Iminiki, also cautioned reporters not to expect a rapid collapse of IS resistance.
IS militants have had plenty of time to prepare for the fight and have constructed elaborate defenses, including a network of tunnels, in the city.
Pentagon spokesman Peter Cook said Monday that U.S. troops are on the Mosul outskirts in a support role, but that “Iraqis are in the lead.”
Monday and Tuesday, Iraqi planes continued to drop leaflets warning civilians in Mosul and outlying villages of the offensive, urging them to stay indoors and to avoid any IS positions, which may prove difficult, with IS fighters throughout the city.
The United Nations Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs called on all participating forces to ensure the safety of civilians in Mosul, and Iraqi commanders say they are taking steps to help civilians escape.
Jamie Detmer and Sirwan Kajjo contributed to this report.
Carla is VOA’s Pentagon correspondent covering defense and international security issues. Her datelines include Ukraine, Turkey, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq and Korea.