(The New York Times) Iraq’s security forces, which suffered huge casualties in the nine-month-long slog to take back the city of Mosul, are replenished enough to begin the fight for ISIS stronghold of Tal Afar — one of the last urban areas held in Iraq by the militant extremist Sunni group, American defense officials said Friday.
But the estimated 1,000 ISIS fighters who are believed to be there could make a brutal and bloody last stand, the officials said, because Tal Afar has been encircled by Iraqi and Kurdish forces, making it difficult for the fighters to flee in large numbers.
In Mosul, Iraqi soldiers “took severe casualties” in the battle to retake the city, which began in October and did not end until July, said Gen. Joseph L. Votel, the head of United States Central Command. But, he added, “I think they are ready,” one month after hostilities ended there, to launch the next big fight.
His comments came during a press briefing with reporters aboard his flight Friday from Baghdad to Islamabad, Pakistan, where he is meeting with Pakistani leaders.
Officials at the American Embassy in Baghdad say 1,400 Iraqi service members were killed in the battle to retake Mosul, with 7,000 wounded.
Also, the military’s equipment was degraded during the battle to the point where “almost all the Iraqi Humvees have broken glass windshields,” said Lt. Gen. Stephen J. Townsend, the American commander of the war effort against ISIS.
General Townsend said that “after nine months, you can imagine how worn your equipment is.” He said American military mechanics have been working with their Iraqi counterparts to try to get the tanks, armored vehicles, bulldozers and Humvees, up and running for the trip west to Tal Afar.
“I can’t say that we’ve replaced every single broken radio, but they’ll be ready enough” for the fight ahead, General Townsend said.
Iraqi military officials and Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi of Iraq have declined to say exactly when they plan to begin the ground war to take back Tal Afar, but indicate it will be soon.
ISIS fighters have dug trenches around the city’s 26 neighborhoods and will use light machine guns, improvised explosive devices and car bombs, in a resistance strategy similar to what the militant group employed in Mosul, Brig. Gen. Yahya Rasool, a spokesman with the Iraqi military, told reporters traveling with General Votel in Baghdad on Thursday.
“At the end, we don’t think they will be tougher than the battle of Mosul,” he said.
American military officials said Iraqi forces have vastly improved their capabilities since 2014, when they fled the onslaught of ISIS as the group declared a caliphate and roared across Iraq, many ISIS fighters in Mosul eventually fled the city and ran to Tal Afar.
Since March, Iraqi and Kurdish forces have surrounded Tal Afar, cutting off escape routes. Kurdish fighters are stationed in the north, the Iraqi Army’s 15th Division is to the city’s east, and the 92nd brigade and the country’s Shiite militias have also joined the encirclement of the city.
American officials say the city is now isolated, save a few porous holes where a few ISIS fighters may be able to escape, but not a big group.
That could signal the tougher fight to the death, American military officials said. And ISIS fighters have not shown much propensity to flee.
General Townsend, in wrenching language, described the last few days of the battle to retake Mosul, as Iraqi security forces went house to house in the warren that is the medieval Old City, as the most intense and bloody fighting he has ever seen.
“It was the hardest combat I’ve witnessed in 35 years — this was Falluja on steroids,” he said, in a reference to the bloody November-December 2004 battle in the Iraqi city that was led by American marines who fought Al Qaeda and other insurgent groups house to house. Almost 100 United States forces were killed and more than 500 injured in Mosul.
“At the end, it took bulldozers plowing ISIS fighters under the rubble as Iraqi infantrymen advanced, shooting and throwing grenades,” General Townsend said, using another name for ISIS. He paused, then repeated: “Bulldozers burying ISIS fighters in the rubble.”
He expressed surprise that more ISIS fighters didn’t surrender when it became clear that they were going to lose. “A lot of them fought right to the end,” he said. “I thought there might be more who surrendered.”
In fact, General Townsend said, “we think there are still a few holdouts” in Mosul even today.