U.S. says Iraqi forces ready for next battle against Islamic State extremists

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Members of the Shi'ite Badr Organisation fighters gather during a battle with Islamic State militants at the airport of Tal Afar

Members of the Shi’ite Badr Organisation fighters gather during a battle with Islamic State militants at the airport of Tal Afar west of Mosul, Iraq, November 20, 2016. Photo by Khalid al Mousily/Reuters

BAGHDAD — Senior U.S. military leaders said Friday that Iraqi forces are largely set for their next major campaign against Islamic State extremists after closing out the wrenching nine-month battle to retake the city of Mosul.

Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, said he sees the Iraqi assault on the IS-held area of Tal Afar “unfolding relatively soon.” The upcoming fight follows weeks of Iraq regrouping troops and repairing equipment and weapons after recapturing Mosul in July.

“I can’t say that we replaced every single damaged or broken vehicle or rifle or machine gun,” said Townsend, whose forces are aiding the Iraqi military. But, he insisted: “They’ll be ready enough.”

Tal Afar and the surrounding area is among the last pockets of IS-held territory in Iraq after victory was declared in Mosul, the country’s second-largest city. Tal Afar is west of Mosul and about 150 kilometers (93 miles) east of the Syrian border. It sits along a major road that was a key IS supply route.

Mosul took a heavy toll on Iraqi forces. As many as 1,400 troops were killed and more than 7,000 wounded, and the Iraqi military has proceeded methodically since its biggest success to date. Just three years ago, its soldiers were chased by the Islamic state group from much of the battlefield.

“The last days of Mosul looked like Iwo Jima to me,” Townsend told a small group of reporters.

“In the end, it took bulldozers plowing ISIS fighters under the rubble,” he recalled, using multiple different acronyms for the extremist group. “Iraqi infantry men advanced beside the bulldozers, shooting and throwing grenades at Daesh fighters popping up out of the rubble.”

Iraiqi Humvees emerged shot up, their glass spider-webbed with bullet marks and shrapnel, their weapons worn out or even destroyed.

In the weeks since, much of the Iraqis’ equipment has been repaired or replaced, said Gen. Joseph Votel, America’s top Middle East commander who spent the last few days in Iraq.

“I think they are ready,” Votel told reporters Friday, echoing Townsend. The key priority, he said, is ensuring the Iraqis maintain momentum and have a good battle plan, and that the U.S.-led coalition is prepared to support them.

Votel met with Iraqi military and political leaders in Baghdad and with Kurdish Peshmerga leaders in Irbil, in northern Iraq. He was ensuring U.S. military advisory teams are with the right local units to provide the best support, intelligence gathering, surveillance and advice.

Iraqi military leaders said Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has approved their combat plans. The fight will involve a broad spectrum of forces, including the Iraqi Army, counterterrorism troops, police and a group of mainly Shiite, Iranian-backed militias.

The fight will start “in the next few days,” Iraqi Brig. Gen. Yahia Rasool told reporters. Speaking through an interpreter, he said officials believe there are between 1,400 and 1,600 IS militants in the Tal Afar area. Many are foreign fighters, he said.

Rasool said the various Iraqi forces already have largely encircled Tal Afar.

“I don’t think it will be tougher than the battle of Mosul, taking into consideration the experience we got in Mosul,” he said

Townsend said the fight for Tal Afar will be a “microcosm” of Mosul, with parts easier and others equally difficult.

“It’s smaller and there are fewer bad guys,” Townsend said. “But for the Iraqi security force member or policeman or infantry man or special forces soldier who’s attacking, it won’t be easier. He’s going to be facing a determined ISIS fighter dug into Tal Afar, determined to fight to the death.”

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