Iraq Ready to Retake Mosul From IS Terrorists

US soldiers walk on a bridge within the town of Gwer in northern Iraq on August 31, 2016. (File Photo)US soldiers walk on a bridge within the town of Gwer in northern Iraq on August 31, 2016. (File Photo)

The US-led war on the self-styled Islamic State terrorist group has depleted the group’s funds, leadership and foreign fighters, but the biggest battle yet is expected later this year in Iraq’s northern city of Mosul, where Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared his “caliphate” two years ago.

The insurgents have lost more than half the territory they seized in Iraq and nearly as much in neighboring Syria, but still manage to control their twin capitals of Mosul and Raqqa, symbols of the state they sought to build at the heart of the Middle East, Reuters reported.

Military and humanitarian preparations are now in full swing to retake Mosul, the largest city under the ultra-hardline group’s control. American troops are establishing a logistics hub to the south while the United Nations warns of the world’s most complex humanitarian operation this year.

Iraq’s recapture over the summer of Qayyara airbase and surrounding areas along the Tigris River 60 km south of Mosul have set the stage for a big push on the city, which commanders say could start by late October.

Whether IS makes a final stand in Mosul or slips away to fight another day remains in question, but Baghdad expects a fierce battle and the international coalition backing it is preparing for one.

The densely populated river valley may hold obstacles for the military, though IS appears to be putting up relatively little resistance, possibly to conserve fighters for a showdown in Mosul where their forces are estimated at between 3,000 and 9,000.

Hardcore fighters have likely slipped out already through the desert and into Syria, while many top leaders and foreign fighters have been killed in targeted airstrikes, according to Major General Najm al-Jabouri, the Mosul operation’s commander.

He told Reuters that victory by year’s end would be easy, in keeping with pledges by Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi.

“We will go to Mosul, they will go to Tel Afar. We will go to Tel Afar, they will go to Baaj,” said Jabouri, referring to IS-controlled districts 70 km and 140 km west of Mosul, respectively, which can be used to reach Syria.

“We will go to Baaj, maybe. It depends on the situation in Syria. They can get to Syria but the situation there is not like before. It is not a safe haven for them now.”

Lieutenant General Vincent Stewart, director of the US Defense Intelligence Agency, said on Thursday he expected the Mosul operation could unfold in the next two or three months but that it would be long and difficult.

“Urban warfighting is not easy and this is a large city that has had at least two years to prepare to defend its position ... It’s going to be a multi-dimensional fight,” Stewart said at a national security summit in Washington.

The war against terrorists in Iraq and Syria backed by some other Arab Middle East states has ebbed and flowed but there is a palpable sense in the region that the tide has turned against IS.