Wednesday 21 February 2018

Iraqi army turns attention to long battle for Mosul

Iraqi security forces raise an Iraqi flag near the provincial council building in central Ramadi. AP Photo/Osama Sami
Iraqi security forces raise an Iraqi flag near the provincial council building in central Ramadi. AP Photo/Osama Sami
Members of the Iraqi security forces hold Iraqi flags at a government complex in the city of Ramadi, yesterday. Photo: Reuters

Colin Freeman London

Iraq last night pledged to use newly reclaimed Ramadi as a springboard to take Isil's stronghold of Mosul, although experts warned it could be another year before ground forces were ready.

After a week of urban combat, Iraqi troops raised the national flag over Ramadi's government compound yesterday, declaring victory against a force of several hundred fighters from Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isil).

The victory - the latest in a string of Isil setbacks in both Iraq and Syria - was hailed as symbolic by the Iraqi government and its US backers, who provided air support.

But claims by Iraq's parliamentary speaker, Salim al-Juburi, that it would be a "launch pad" for the taking of Mosul in north-west Iraq appeared premature. Security analysts said that unlike in Ramadi, where Isil had left only a small force, Mosul would be a Stalingrad-style battle contested by thousands of Isil's best troops.

"Mosul will be the main prize for both sides in this conflict, and so it won't be any time soon - not in the first half of 2016, and probably not the second half either," said Toby Dodge, an Iraq expert with the London School of Economics, who has just returned from a visit to Baghdad.

That would mean the city could remain in Isil hands until 2017, while the Iraqi army - which melted away when Isil captured Mosul 18 months ago - regains enough strength to retake it.

Similarly, a few hundred determined Isil fighters routed a much bigger Iraqi army presence in May to overrun Ramadi.

A turning point in the fight to regain the city came yesterday morning, when Isil gun positions within the government compound finally fell silent, although Iraqi army commanders said last night that they were still dealing with pockets of resistance.

They said that more than 300 booby traps had been left in and around the government compound area alone.

One Ramadi resident, speaking by phone, said that Isil fighters had apologised for "abandoning" residents but had "promised to be back".

"Some of the citizens went back to their homes and have put white flags on rooftops awaiting the Iraqi army arrival," he said.

However, while government troops danced in the battle-scarred streets, and state television showed celebrations in Baghdad and elsewhere, there were concerns that it was not quite the showcase triumph it seemed.

The Iraqi authorities did not divulge casualty figures, but medics said close to 100 wounded government fighters were brought to Baghdad hospitals on Sunday alone.

According to Mr Dodge, US commanders were frustrated at the slow pace of the attack. "If you speak to the Iraqi army, they say that is because of lack of US air support, while if you speak to the US military, it is because of the lack of leadership and lack of capacity.

"But either way, the Iraqi army is currently very slow and risk-averse, and that is why taking Mosul will take a lot longer than people think," he said.

Mr Dodge was also sceptical of claims by Iraq's Shia-dominated government that the Ramadi operation was led by regular government troops, rather than the Shia militias who have helped it retake other Isil-held cities such as Tikrit, but are deeply resented in Sunni areas.

Ramadi, the provincial capital of the western Anbar province, fell to Isil in May, marking a major setback for Iraqi forces and the US-led campaign.

In recent months Iraqi forces have launched several offensives to retake Ramadi, but all had stalled. Iraqi troops began advancing into some parts of the city, located about 130km west of Baghdad, earlier this month. But their progress was slowed by snipers, booby traps and the militants' destruction of bridges leading into the city centre.

Col Steve Warren, a US military spokesman in Baghdad, called the victory "a proud moment for Iraq".

"The clearance of the government centre is a significant accomplishment and is the result of many months of hard work by the Iraqi army, the counterterrorism service, the Iraqi air force, local and federal police, and tribal fighters," Warren said.

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi delivered a televised speech last night and vowed to free the whole country from the Isil in 2016. © Daily Telegraph, London.

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