Hungry, Thirsty, Worried and Bloodied in Battle to Retake Mosul From ISIS

Iraqis at the Khazer refugee camp, about 45 miles from Mosul, pleading for food during the distribution of aid on Saturday. (Manu Brabo/Associated Press)
Iraqis at the Khazer refugee camp, about 45 miles from Mosul, pleading for food during the distribution of aid on Saturday. (Manu Brabo/Associated Press)

After two months, the battle to retake the Iraqi city of Mosul from the Islamic State has settled into a grinding war of attrition. The front lines have barely budged in weeks. Casualties of Iraqi security forces are so high that American commanders heading the United States-led air campaign worry that they are unsustainable. Civilians are being killed or injured by Islamic State snipers and growing numbers of suicide bombers.

As the world watches the horrors unfolding in Aleppo, Syria, where government forces and allied militias bombed civilians and carried out summary executions as they retook the last rebel-held areas, a different tragedy is transpiring in Mosul. Up to one million people are trapped inside the city, running low on food and drinking water and facing the worsening cruelty of Islamic State fighters.

“ISIS members have become like mad dogs, and every member has the power of immediate execution,” Abu Noor said by telephone from his home on the west side of Mosul, which government forces had not reached, referring to the terror group by one of its acronyms. “We live in constant fear and worry.”

As the fight drags on, it is looking more and more likely that Mosul will become one of the first national security issues facing President-elect Donald J. Trump when he takes office next month. While American forces have largely steered clear of the fighting in Syria, they are deeply involved in operations just over the border in Iraq, mainly in training, advising and support roles.

Senior American officials and top commanders in the Middle East say the brutal urban fight for Mosul is succeeding — however slowly — but is proving to be tougher than expected. These officials predict that the battle to oust the Islamic State from Iraq’s second-largest city could last two to four more months.

Brett H. McGurk, President Obama’s envoy to the international coalition fighting the Islamic State, noted at a recent White House briefing that previous battles against the terror group, as in Falluja, in Iraq, or Ramadi or Kobani, in Syria, took months, and said that eventually the Islamic State would exhaust its supply of munitions and fighters.

“Eventually they reach a culmination point, they simply cannot resupply, they run out of suicide bombers,” Mr. McGurk said. “In Mosul, we don’t know when that will come. It could come very soon, it could come a couple months from now, but our momentum will be sustained and we’ll provide relentless pressure on the enemy throughout Mosul.”

Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend gave Pentagon reporters a year-end update that made no prediction on how soon Mosul would be liberated. “It’s progressing. It’s probably not progressing as fast as I, as a U.S. Army officer, would like, but it is progressing, and the Iraqis are advancing every day,” he said.

General Townsend said the Iraqis were engaged in discussions “about how to inject new energy” into their assault. “We’re just going to let it go at the pace” of the Iraqi military, he said. “They’re the ones doing the fighting and the dying.”

The battle for Mosul has shaped up unlike any other in Iraq. As Iraqi forces have advanced, they have uncovered Islamic State bomb-making facilities that have stunned soldiers and researchers in their sophistication, indicating that it could be a long time before the group runs out of arms.

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SOURCE: NY Times, Tim Arango, Eric Schmitt and Rukmini Callimachi