Wednesday 22 November 2017

Bomb disposal expert is first US combat fatality in battle for Mosul

An Iraqi military convoy advances towards Mosul (AP)
An Iraqi military convoy advances towards Mosul (AP)

Qassim Abdul-Zahra and Susannah George

An American bomb disposal expert has become the country's first combat fatality in the fight to retake Mosul.

US officials said the service member died from wounds sustained in a roadside bomb explosion north of the besieged Iraqi city.

More than 100 US special operations forces are embedded with Iraqi units in the offensive and hundreds more are playing a support role in staging bases.

The American had been operating as an explosive ordnance disposal specialist in support of the Iraqi Kurdish force known as the peshmerga.

Roadside bombs and other improvised explosive devices pose a particular danger to advancing Iraqi forces and the US advisers who are with them. The Islamic State group, which has occupied Mosul for more than two years, has prepared extensive defences in and around the city.

Meanwhile, as they charged toward the town of Bartella, nine miles from Mosul's outskirts, the Iraqi special forces faced another favoured weapon in the IS arsenal: armoured trucks packed with explosives and driven by suicide bombers.

The weapons offered a glimpse at what Iraqi forces can expect as they close in on the extremists' biggest urban bastion.

The pre-dawn assault on Bartella was part of a multi-pronged operation on eastern approaches to Mosul, Iraq's second-largest city. Attack helicopters strafed militant positions as they advanced amid a hail of gunfire.

Iraqi special forces raise an Iraq flag after retaking Bartella, outside Mosul (AP)
Iraqi special forces raise an Iraq flag after retaking Bartella, outside Mosul (AP)
Last night, a senior Iraqi general called on Iraqis fighting for Isil in Mosul to surrender as a wide-scale operation to retake the militant-held city entered its third day. Photo: Yasin Akgul/Getty Images

The US-trained special forces, officially known as the Counter Terrorism Service, are widely seen as Iraq's most professional and least sectarian fighters and have served as the shock troops in previous campaigns against IS. They are expected to lead the charge into Mosul.

IS militants unleashed at least nine suicide car and truck bombs against the advancing troops, eight of which were destroyed before reaching their targets, while the ninth struck an armoured Humvee, Lt Col Muntadhar al-Shimmari said

He did not give a casualty figure, but another officer said five Iraqi soldiers were wounded.

"After we break them in Bartella, everywhere else, they will crumble," said Maj Gen Fadhil Barwari. He said IS had few defences in the town, which was almost empty of civilians. "They just left some snipers and suicide car bombs," he said.

Read more: Suspected 'Islamic State' supporter attacks three policemen in knife attack

Meanwhile, Iraqi Kurdish forces announced a simultaneous attack, with peshmerga fighters deployed on mountains north east of Mosul descending from their positions and charging towards the front line.

Under cover of mortar and gunfire, the Kurdish troops used bulldozers and other heavy equipment to fill trenches dug by the militants as part of their defence of the IS-held village of Barima, then advanced with their armoured vehicles toward the extremists' positions.

Military operations also appeared to be under way in the town of Bashiqa, north east of Mosul, where thick smoke could be seen billowing. A day earlier, Bashiqa was pounded by air strikes and mortar fire from peshmerga positions high above.

Iraqi forces deploy in Bajwaniyah, about 30km south of Mosul after they liberated the village from Isil. Photo: Ahmad al-rubaye/Getty Images
Iraqi forces deploy in Bajwaniyah, about 30km south of Mosul after they liberated the village from Isil. Photo: Ahmad al-rubaye/Getty Images
Displaced people, who are fleeing from clashes in Al-hud village, south of Mosul, head to Qayyarah, during an operation to attack Islamic State militants in Mosul, Iraq, October 18, 2016. Picture taken October 18, 2016. REUTERS/Stringer PX IMAGES OF THE DAY

Lt Gen Talib Shaghati said the special forces had succeeded in retaking Bartella, but Iraqi forces were still facing stiff resistance inside the town shortly before he spoke, and past advances against IS elsewhere in Iraq have often proved fleeting.

After Bartella, Iraqi forces advancing towards Mosul will begin to hit villages and suburbs where civilians still live, a factor that will further complicate military operations that rely heavily on artillery and air strikes to clear territory.

Mosul is home to more than a million people, and rights groups fear a potential humanitarian crisis.

Meanwhile, prime minister Haider Al-Abadi said Mosul may fall sooner than expected. The campaign to retake the city, which began on Monday, had been expected to last weeks, if not months.

Speaking by video transmission to a conference in Paris focused on post-liberation planning for Mosul, he said the Iraqi "forces are currently pushing forward ... more quickly than we thought, and more quickly certainly than we established in our plan of campaign."

The Islamic State group captured Mosul and the surrounding area during a lightning advance across northern Iraq in the summer of 2014, and IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi announced the formation of a self-styled caliphate from the pulpit of a Mosul mosque.

Iraqi forces crumbled that summer, beating a humiliating retreat and leaving weapons and vehicles behind. But the special forces held together and fought back, and since then they have played a central role in retaking cities and towns from the extremist group.

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