Iraqi and Kurdish forces prepare for Mosul offensive in April-May
Mosul is the largest city under Daesh control. The militant group captured the city in June 2014. (AFP/File)
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An Iraqi and Kurdish military force of some 20,000 to 25,000 troops is being prepared to recapture the city of Mosul from Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) fighters, probably in the April-May time frame, an official at the US Central Command said on Thursday.
"The mark on the wall we are still shooting for is the April-May timeframe," the official said, adding that because of Ramadan and the increasing heat of summer, "it becomes problematic if it goes much later (than May)."
The official said Mosul was currently being held by 1,000 to 2,000 ISIS fighters. No decision has been made on whether small numbers of US military advisers might need to be on the ground close to Mosul to direct close air support, the official told a group of reporters on condition of anonymity.
Mosul, which had a population of over 1 million people, was captured by ISIS fighters in June and is the largest city in the group's self-declared caliphate, a stretch of territory that straddles the border between northern Iraq and eastern Syria.
The main attack force being assembled for the Mosul campaign would include five Iraqi army brigades, the official said. Three smaller brigades would act as a reserve force, and three brigades of Kurdish peshmerga troops would contain the city from the north and isolate it from ISIS forces further west.
A so-called Mosul fighting force consisting mainly of former Mosul police officers and tribal fighters also is being assembled for the assault, the official said. About a brigade of “counterterrorism troops” also would be employed in the fight, he said. The total number of troops would be 20,000 to 25,000.
The aim of Iraqi and US military leaders is to have all five Iraqi army brigades that comprise the main attack force participate in US-led training currently going on in Iraq. That will begin once the present batch of 3,200 trainees rotate out of the five training sites, the official said.
The official said the timing of the offensive would ultimately depend on the readiness of Iraqi forces, which collapsed last summer facing ISIS’ sweeping offensive.
It is highly unusual for the US military to openly telegraph the timing of an upcoming offensive, especially to a large group of reporters.
Asked why the exception was being made for the Mosul offensive, which the Pentagon has described as a pivotal battle in the overall campaign in Iraq, the official said it was a reflection of the confidence of Iraq, which had devised the battle plan.
"They are absolutely committed to this. There are a lot of pieces that have to come together and we want to make sure the conditions are right. But this is their plan. They have bought into it. They are moving forward as if they will execute in the time frame that I just described," the official said.
Meanwhile, military chiefs from two dozen countries gathered again on Thursday in the Saudi capital to seek ways of bolstering the Iraqi army against ISIS jihadists.
US General Lloyd Austin, who heads the US-led war against ISIS, was among the senior officers attending the two-day talks that opened Wednesday behind closed doors.
"I'm confident that they are looking at a firm plan, a coordinated plan, to empower the Iraqi army" against ISIS, a Western diplomat said, asking for anonymity.
With "nobody" interested in putting ground troops into the country, strengthening Iraq's 200,000-strong army against an estimated 30,000 ISIS fighters remains the best option, he said.
US President Barack Obama however recently promised earlier this month to back up the strikes with targeted covert ground-based attacks if necessary.
"If we had actionable intelligence about a gathering of ISIL leaders, and our partners didn't have the capacity to get them, I would be prepared to order our special forces to take action," Obama said, using another acronym for ISIS.
Iraqi Foreign Minister Ibrahim al-Jafaari responded to Obama saying that Iraq refused US ground forces for military operations that stop short of a full-scale invasion.
In the meantime, the US-led coalition focused airstrikes in the area of Mosul, as Kurdish forces launched successful offensives against ISIS-held roads nearby.
"The coalition remains the strength of our military campaign" said Austin, who leads the US Central Command.
In a statement, he said the capability of ISIS "has been degraded in Syria, and they are proving unable to take and hold new territory in Iraq."
But the campaign against them "will take time."
Among Western nations, Australia, Belgium, Britain, Canada, Denmark, France and the Netherlands have all bombed ISIS in Iraq, alongside the US.
Germany said in December it would send about 100 soldiers to northern Iraq to train Kurdish peshmerga fighters battling the extremists.
And regional powerhouse Saudi Arabia has been participating in airstrikes against ISIS in Syria since September.
Jordan, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain have also deployed warplanes.
"I think Syria is somewhat on the back burner now," the source said. "The first thing is, you have to clear the house in Iraq."
He said he did not expect any dramatic change in coalition strategy from the Riyadh meeting.
American commanders have placed a top priority on pushing back the extremists in Iraq, while warning it could take years before a moderate Syrian rebel force is ready to make headway against the jihadists in Syria.
The official Saudi Press Agency said the 26 participating nations at the Riyadh talks aimed "to reach measures serving international and regional security."
Four similar meetings have occurred in other countries, SPA said.
The US-led anti-ISIS coalition has been bombing Iraq since September and has so far billed Iraq $260 million, despite failure to stop the advance of militants.
However, the air campaign, which Washington says aims to degrade ISIS' military capability, remains the subject of debate, with critics pointing to ISIS' advances and battlefield successes despite the raids.
The expansion of terrorist groups in Iraq raises questions about the effectiveness of the US anti-terrorism campaign since 2001.
The United States invaded Iraq in 2003 using the pretext of “fighting terrorism” and claiming that then-dictator Saddam Hussein owned weapons of mass destruction.
The war aimed to eliminate al-Qaeda in Iraq, but the terrorist group didn't exist in the country until after the invasion. The US invasion has served as a recruitment tool for terrorist groups, as figures show that terrorism rose precipitously in Iraq since 2003.
The war aimed to “free Iraqis” but instead killed at least half a million Iraqis and left the country in total turmoil.
Humanitarian crisis in Iraq
Meanwhile, the number of internally displaced families fleeing conflict in Iraq reached 521,000, a government official said Friday.
“The last statistic shows 521,000 internally displaced families. More than 2.6 million internally displaced persons exist if the average family is five people,” Asghar al-Musawi of the Iraqi Ministry of Migration and Displacement told Anadolu news agency.
The new displaced families were recorded from Anbar in western Iraq, Diyala in the east as well as Salahuddin and Nineveh in northern Iraq.
Most of the displaced people are located in camps in the northern, central and western regions of Iraq.
Musawi expected the number of displaced families to keep increasing.
Latest statistics from January 2015 recorded 507,000 internally displaced families.
International relief organizations, such as the Red Cross and United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, along with local organizations, such as the Iraqi Red Crescent and Iraqi Ministry of Immigration and Migrants, provide help to fleeing citizens.
However, Iraqi officials have said that the volume of aid offered by UN organizations to the displaced persons does not match the severity of the situation.
Violence in Iraq has been on the rise since the US-led invasion in 2003. The numbers coming out of the war-torn country highlight the humanitarian crisis.
A report published on Wednesday by the Ceasefire Center for Civilian Rights and Minority Rights Group International revealed that 14,000 women have been killed in the past 12 years.
The report, although focused on gender-based violence, highlighted different types of atrocities committed against the Iraqi people, including killings, sexual assaults and abductions.
The Iraqi Turkmen Rescue Foundation, an independent Iraqi body that aims to protect Turkmens’ rights, submitted a report on Thursday to the Iraqi parliament’s human rights committee, revealing that more than 400 Turkmens were in the hands of ISIS.
“There are about 450 Turkmens kidnapped by ISIS who are still alive including 50 children and 70 women and girls, ” Akram al-Bayati, chairman of the Turkmen Rescue Foundation, told Anadolu.
However, the Ceasefire report put the number of women Turkmens held by ISIS at 300.
The Turkmen Rescue Foundation report described the situation of Turkmens in the provinces of Nineveh, Kirkuk, Salahuddin, and Diyala, according to al-Bayati.
“The report seeks contribution from the parliament, the government of northern Iraq, the central government and international organizations to free the kidnapped Turkmens within the context of freeing all the kidnapped Yazidis and Christians by ISIS,” al-Bayati said.
“The crimes committed by ISIS are categorized as genocide crimes as ISIS has committed mass massacres and destroyed many places of worship,” Soran Omar the chief of the Iraqi Kurdish parliament’s human rights committee, told Anadolu without going into specifics.
Turkmens are ethnic relatives to Turks, with whom they share a common culture. Iraqi Turkmens are the third-largest ethnic group living in northern Iraq.
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