Iraq requests more US troops ahead of Mosul battle

Baghdad (AFP) - Iraq has asked Washington to deploy additional trainers and advisers as its forces prepare for the battle to retake Mosul from the Islamic State group, the premier's office said Wednesday.

IS seized Mosul along with swathes of other territory in June 2014, but the country's forces have since regained significant ground from the jihadists and are readying for a drive to retake Iraq's second city.

Iraq has requested "a final increase in the number of American trainers and advisers... to support the heroic Iraqi security forces in their impending battle to liberate Mosul," Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi's office said in a statement.

Abadi's office said the US government had agreed to the request.

A US official said that Washington is prepared to send additional troops, but there has not yet been an announcement on when they would be deployed or how many more would be sent.

A US-led coalition is carrying out air strikes against IS in Iraq, and Washington has authorised the deployment of more than 4,600 military personnel to the country.

Most are in advisory or training roles, but some American forces have fought IS on the ground, and three members of the US military have been killed by the jihadists in Iraq.

The US has repeatedly emphasised that the assistance it is providing to Iraq is at Baghdad's request, but such requests have generally not been publicised by the Iraqi government.

Abadi's spokesman Saad al-Hadithi said the announcement was made in this case to clarify what the US forces would be doing and head off accusations that they would be involved in combat.

- Politically sensitive -

The statement from Abadi's office noted that American forces are helping Iraq in its battle against the jihadists, but their presence is still extremely politically sensitive due to the nine-year war the US fought in the country.

The statement said that the number of trainers and advisors would start to be reduced as soon as Mosul is retaken from IS, and also asserted that no American troops had fought alongside Iraqi troops.

In reality, American special forces have fought IS alongside Iraqi Kurdish forces on several occasions that have been made public, and likely in other operations that have not come to light.

Various Western officials have indicated that the battle to retake Mosul will begin in October, though Abadi has declined to specify when it will start, saying he wants to maintain surprise.

Once the push is launched, a coalition of heterogenous and sometimes rival Iraqi forces will have to fight through IS defences -- in some cases over distances of dozens of kilometres (miles) from their current positions -- to reach the city.

Then, if Iraqi strategy for Mosul follows that used in previous operations, they will seek to surround and seal off the city prior to an assault.

The operation also poses major humanitarian challenges: the United Nations has said that it may displace up to one million people, and impact up to 1.5 million.

Even after Mosul is retaken, the war against IS will be far from over.

The jihadists are likely to revert to insurgent tactics, such as bombings of civilians and hit-and-run attacks on security forces, following the demise of their "state" in Iraq.

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