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US, Iraqi Forces Planning Spring Offensive to Repel ISIS from Mosul

Islamic State group militants wave al-Qaida flags as they patrol in a commandeered Iraqi military vehicle in Fallujah, 40 miles (65 kilometers) west of Baghdad, Iraq. (AP Photo, File)

U.S. and Iraqi forces are planning to launch an offensive this spring designed to repel Islamic militants from the northern city of Mosul, a military official said.

Militants affiliated with the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, took over the city in June as the group advanced and captured territory in both countries. It's the largest city in their control.

The offensive is currently planned for April or May and may require as many as 25,000 Iraqi security personnel, including an attack force of up to five Iraqi army brigades with about 2,000 troops apiece, according to a U.S. Central Command official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

How many and what kinds of U.S. military personnel will play a role in the mission hasn't yet been decided, the official said.

"What we will offer and provide is the full range of military options that we've given them and continue to give them every day," the official said, including support for equipment and training, logistics, air strikes, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance. "That full range is out there."

Army Gen. Lloyd Austin, the Centcom commander who oversees U.S. troops in Iraq, and Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, "have not closed the door" on whether to recommend joint terminal attack controllers and special operations forces for the mission, the official said.

The U.S. had about 2,600 troops in Iraq as of Feb. 18, with most serving as advisers to Iraqi and Kurdish forces in Baghdad and Irbil. President Obama last fall authorized the deployment of up to almost 3,000 American troops to the country to better advise and train Iraqi forces.

Meanwhile, Washington on Thursday reached an agreement with Ankara to begin training moderate Syrian forces at a base in Turkey, the official said, and similar arrangements are expected to be announced in coming weeks and months with Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Qatar.

Obama last summer ordered airstrikes against ISIS targets in Iraq and later Syria. The al-Qaeda-linked terrorist group responded by circulating videos depicting the executions of prisoners, including the beheading of American aid worker and former Army Ranger Peter Kassig and, more recently, the burning of captured Jordanian pilot Lt. Muath al-Kaseasbeh.

There are between 1,000 and 2,000 ISIS, also known as ISIL, fighters estimated to be in Mosul, the official said, which is Iraqi’s second-largest city and home to more than 1 million people.

The operation to retake the city will likely require a dozen brigades, or the equivalent thereof, and include the five Iraqi Army attack elements, three smaller units, three Peshmerga brigades and a so-called Mosul fighting force comprised of police and tribal fighters, the official said.

When asked the motive for telegraphing a timeframe and the size of the forces, the official said, “Just to describe the level of detail that the Iraqi security forces are doing and the level of commitment that they have to this and the significance of this upcoming operation.”

The official added, “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 are bought into it. They are moving forward as if they will execute in the timeframe I just described.

-- Brendan McGarry can be reached at brendan.mcgarry@military.com