U.S. airstrikes destroyed about 40 empty ISIS trucks on the outskirts of Mosul that the terror group was readying to transport civilians back into the city to be used as "human shields," a U.S. military spokesman said Friday.
The disclosure that the U.S. was using airstrikes in an attempt to limit ISIS' ability to exploit civilians came as the Mosul offensive "paused" to allow Iraqi Security Forces and Kurdish Peshmerga fighters to clear up pockets of resistance and refit for the assault on the city itself, said Air Force Col. John Dorrian, a spokesman for Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve.
In a separate development, the Shia Popular Mobilization Units, which have links to Iran, announced that they will begin an operation west of Mosul to capture Tal Afar and cut off an escape route for the fighters of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.
Such an action would complicate the main offensive and possibly provoke a response from Turkey, which has a military unit north of Mosul near the town of Bashiqa and considers Tal Afar within its regional sphere of influence. Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has allowed the Shia units to accompany the main Iraqi Security Forces units but has said that they will not be allowed to enter Mosul itself.
Human right groups have charged that the Shia units committed atrocities against civilians who were fleeing the successful assault that retook Fallujah in Anbar province earlier this year.
In a briefing from Baghdad to the Pentagon, Dorrian said that ISIS had assembled about 50 trucks that the U.S. military believed were going to be used to transport civilians back into Mosul. He said U.S. airstrikes were able to destroy 40 to 45 of the trucks.
"We don't have good fidelity" on how many civilians ISIS was intending to herd into the trucks, Dorrian said, and he did not state where or when the airstrikes were carried out.
The initial U.S. assessment was that ISIS would use human shields differently than it did during the successful offensives to retake Ramadi and Fallujah, Dorrian said.
ISIS had previously used human shields to cover escapes but now is using civilians to slow the advance of the Iraqi Security Forces and the Kurdish Peshmerga, he said. "We did expect them to do this type of thing."
Dorrian said the U.S.-backed assault is largely proceeding according to plan and had advanced to within 10 to 20 kilometers of the Mosul city limits, although some reports put units within five kilometers of the city.
The offensive currently is on hold, Dorrian said. "Sometimes, it's in their interest to pause the advance to do some back clearing" of ISIS elements that were bypassed in the advance, he said.
"They're still largely on plan" and are expected to continue the advance after a few days to refit and resupply, he said. "A lot of it is just repositioning of forces."
According to the United Nations, Islamic State fighters have taken "tens of thousands" of people hostage and are herding them toward Mosul for use as human shields in the battle for the militant group's last major Iraqi stronghold.
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Miilitary.com.