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PENTAGON TIPS OFF ISIS ON PLAN TO TAKE BACK MOSUL


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The operation to retake Iraq's second largest city from Islamic State militants will likely begin in April or May and will involve about 12 Iraqi brigades, or between 20,000 and 25,000 troops, a senior U.S. military official said Thursday.



Laying out details of the expected Mosul operation for the first time, the official from U.S. Central Command said five Iraqi Army brigades will soon go through coalition training in Iraq to prepare for the mission. Those five would make up the core fighting force that would launch the attack, but they would be supplemented by three smaller brigades serving as reserve forces, along with three Peshmerga brigades who would contain the Islamic State fighters from the north and west.



The Peshmerga are Kurdish forces from northern Iraq.



The official said there also would be a Mosul fighting force, largely made up of former Mosul police and tribal forces, who would have to be ready to go back into the city once the army units clear out the Islamic State fighters.



Included in the force would be a brigade of Iraqi counterterrorism forces who have been trained by U.S. special operations forces. The brigades include roughly 2,000 troops each. The official was not authorized to discuss the operation publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity.



Military leaders don't often disclose as many details of an operation before it takes place, but in some cases it can have an impact on the enemy, trigger a reaction or even prompt some militants to flee before the assault begins.



The operation itself comes as no surprise to the Islamic State group. Iraqi leaders have for months made it publicly clear that they were planning an operation to retake Mosul and that they were eager to get started. In addition, U.S. officials had already acknowledged that they were beginning preparations for the Mosul mission, including using airstrikes to shut down supply lines that the insurgents were using to get equipment or people in and out of the city.


Asked why U.S. Central Command was telegraphing the timeframe and details of the operation to the enemy, the official said it was important to highlight the effort the Iraqi security forces are putting into the mission and how committed they are to it.



The official said the U.S. will provide military support for the operation, including training, air support, intelligence and surveillance. The official said there has been no decision made yet on whether to send in some U.S. ground troops to help call in airstrikes. That decision would be made by senior defense and military leaders and President Barack Obama.


Islamic State militants overtook Mosul last June, as the group marched across large sections of Iraq and Syria, sending Iraqi forces fleeing. At this point, officials estimate there are between 1,000 to 2,000 Islamic State insurgents in the city of Mosul. Military leaders have been talking about retaking the city for some time, but they have said they won't launch the operation until the Iraqi troops are ready.



The official said they wanted to retake Mosul in the spring, before the summer heat and the holiday month of Ramadan kick in.



"But by the same token, if they're not ready, if the conditions are not set, if all the equipment they need is not physically there and they (aren't) trained to a degree in which they will be successful, we have not closed the door on continuing to slide that to the right," he said.



Under the plan, the approximately 3,200 Iraqi forces that have completed the training already or are going through it now would replace the five main brigades wherever thay are now, and those five units would then go through several weeks of final training before the Mosul operation begins.



The official also revealed for the first time that Qatar has agreed to host a training site for coalition forces to train moderate Syrian rebels who would return to Syria to fight the Islamic State forces there. Other sites are in Turkey, Jordan and Saudi Arabia.



The training facility in Jordan is ready to go. The technical agreement on the Turkey training site was signed Thursday, and it is nearly ready. The facility in Saudi Arabia will be ready to open in one to three months, and the site in Qatar will be finished in six to nine months, the official said.

 

The U.S. and other coalition nations will train the Syrian fighters so they can return to their own country and battle the Islamic State group.

 

Some signs of tension emerge among Islamic State militants

 

As the Islamic State group tries to expand and take root across the Middle East, it is struggling in Syria — part of its heartland — where it has stalled or even lost ground while fighting multiple enemies on several fronts.

 

Signs of tension and power struggles are emerging among the ranks of its foreign fighters.

 

The extremists remain a formidable force, and the group's hold on about a third of Iraq and Syria remains firm. But it appears to be on the defensive in Syria for the first time since it swept through the territory last year and is suffering from months of U.S.-led coalition airstrikes and the myriad factions fighting it on the ground.

 

"They are struggling with new challenges that did not exist before," said Lina Khatib, director of the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut.

 

Kurdish forces dealt the Islamic State its heaviest setback by driving it from the border town of Kobani in northern Syria last month. Since then, those forces have joined with moderate Syrian rebels to take back about 215 villages in the same area, according to Kurdish commanders and activists, including the Britain-based monitoring group, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

 

The gains have strained supply lines between the Islamic State group's westernmost strongholds in Aleppo province from its core territory in eastern Syria. The Kurdish-rebel forces are now expected to take the fight to some of those strongholds, particularly the large towns of Minbij and Jarablus, as well as Tal Abyad, a border crossing with Turkey that is a major avenue for commerce for the extremists.

 

Around the town of al-Bab, one of the IS group's westernmost strongholds, the extremists are making tactical withdrawals. Residents have noted a thinner militant presence in al-Bab.

 

The militants are also finding themselves bogged down in costly battles with the government forces of Syrian President Bashar Assad.

 

The extremist group, also known as ISIS or ISIL, has been stuck in fierce fighting with the Syrian army near the Deir el-Zour air base, the last major Syrian military stronghold in the eastern province. IS launched an unsuccessful attack to seize the base last month, and it continues to try.

 

It is too early to call the shifts a turning point, but they represent the slow grind of the international campaign against the Islamic State group, which long seemed unconquerable as it seized territory stretching from outside the city of Aleppo in northern Syria's at one end to the outskirts of the Iraqi capital of Baghdad at the other.

 

In Iraq, the combination of coalition airstrikes, Kurdish forces, Shiite militias and Iraqi troops have pushed IS back around the edges, but the militants succeeded this week in taking new territory for the first time in months. They also raised new alarms with the presence of their affiliate in Libya.

 

But it was in the Syrian town of Kobani that the Islamic State suffered its worst single loss — more than 1,000 militants killed — and much of its heavy weaponry and vehicles destroyed. The January defeat followed five months of fighting by mostly Kurdish ground forces and coalition airstrikes that left about 70 percent of the town in ruins and sent tens of thousands of its residents fleeing over the nearby border into Turkey.

 

After the loss of Kobani, signs of fissures within the IS group have emerged.

 

Bari Abdellatif, a resident of al-Bab who also has fled to Turkey, said friction between Chechen and Uzbek militants recently led to clashes between the two that ended only with the intervention of Omar al-Shishani, a prominent Chechen IS commander. At least two senior figures were killed because of the internal strife, he said.

 

"The prolonged battle for Kobani caused a lot of tensions — fighters accused each other of treachery and eventually turned on each other," Abdellatif said.

 

Several other activists confirmed recent clashes between factions from different national backgrounds within IS.

 

Last month, a senior official with the group's Hisba, or vice police, was found beheaded in Deir el-Zour province. A cigarette was stuffed in his mouth, apparently trying to show he was killed for smoking, which is banned by IS, but there are suspicions the official — an Egyptian — was killed by the extremists who suspected him of spying.

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