U.S. troops are about to get much closer to the fight in Iraq.
Iraqi forces are preparing to retake Mosul from the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria as soon as next month, and U.S. forces will be right behind them as part of their “advise, assist and accompany” mission.
The official said it would be akin to the U.S. military effort in Sirte, Libya, where U.S. forces moved into liberated parts of the city as militia forces retook ground from ISIS.
U.S. troops can embed with conventional Iraqi army at the brigade and battalion headquarters only, but can get much closer to the fight with Iraqi elite forces, known as the Iraqi Counter Terrorism Service, or with Kurdish peshmerga forces.
It’s those elite Iraqi forces who are expected to conduct the fight for Mosul. U.S. troops currently have the authority to accompany them onto the battlefield up until the “final objective” — or point where they expect to come into contact with the enemy.
“In terms of how we operate with Kurdish forces and CTS, they operate in small units that go out and we provide a level of assistance that includes accompanying them on some of their missions,” Pentagon spokesman Navy Capt. Jeff Davis said Wednesday.
Last week, a U.S. Marine general who recently served in Baghdad as the deputy commander of U.S. operations in central and Western Iraq said he expected the CTS be the ones to enter the city, and for other Iraqi forces to hold the ground.
“It’ll probably only be CTS,” said Maj. Gen. William F. Mullen III last week during a talk at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “Frankly speaking, the Iraqi army really isn’t willing to do that kind of fighting.”
Defense officials expect that the fight for Mosul will be fierce, but emphasize that U.S. forces will not be taking on a combat role.
“This is still ultimately an Iraq and Iraqi fight, and anything we do there is in support of them, and to enable them,” Davis said. “They will continue to primarily be the trigger pullers, and we will be the ones supporting them, although certainly as you’ve heard before, that doesn’t mean they’re not in harm’s way.”
Three U.S. troops have been killed in Iraq by enemy fire since the ISIS war began in August 2014, including a Delta Force embedded with Kurdish Peshmerga forces during a raid.
The Mosul offensive is expected to start as early as October.
The Pentagon announced Wednesday it would deploy 615 additional U.S. forces to Iraq in the coming “weeks,” in anticipation of the offensive to retake the city.
Although most of those forces will provide logistics, maintenance and intelligence support, some of those will consist of “advise and assist teams” who could accompany the Iraqi forces into Mosul.
Defense officials believe that retaking Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city and ISIS’s stronghold since June 2014, will largely represent ISIS’s defeat in Iraq.
“This is it. Mosul is the last major bastion that they hold,” Davis said.