by Jamal Hashim
BAGHDAD, Dec. 28 (Xinhua) -- The Iraqi army has launched a campaign for more than two months to retake Mosul, the second largest city in the country, from Islamic State (IS) group. However, the terrorist group is not giving up a fight.
Since early November, the Iraqi commandos of Counter-Terrorism Service (CTS) fought fierce street-to-street battles inside Mosul and managed to free some 40 districts from IS militants in the early weeks of the battle, while the army's 9th and 1st Divisions recaptured six more districts, according to official statements.
The troops at the beginning made rapid advance inside the city, but later the extremist militants showed stiff resistance after the IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi urged his fighters not to retreat from Mosul.
He called on the militants "to confront the enemy (security forces) and transform their blood into rivers, their days into dark nights," according to the recording which could not be authentically verified.
Abdulllah al-Obeidi, a political expert, told Xinhua that al-Baghdadi's message dramatically changed the group's usual tactic of withdrawing from the cities and towns after a few days of heavy and sporadic clashes.
"Many observers believed that the group's militants would do it again and withdraw suddenly after showing some resistance, but al-Baghdadi's audio recording turned the table. Yes, they (IS) have been defeated and withdrew from some positions, but their defeat was never without heavy cost," Obeidi said.
Over the past two and a half years, the IS militants have dug an extensive network of tunnels and trenches to transport equipment and fighters, and rigged roads and bridges with bomb.
One of the most difficult hurdles facing the Iraqi forces is the presence of over one million civilians, who are still living in the city and the extremist group is using them as human shields.
However, during the past few weeks, the front lines in Mosul have barely changed and the increasing casualties among the Iraqi forces and civilians have pushed military and political experts to warn that the battle inside Mosul has settled into a grinding war of attrition.
The ferocity of the battles forced the Iraqi forces to seek support to avoid the long battles and heavy casualties.
According to Obeidi, seeking support would entails Abadi, as the commander-in-chief of Iraqi forces, looking into available options: traditional army forces, the predominantly Shiite paramilitary Hashd Shaabi units, and the U.S.-led international coalition.
"Except for the U.S.-trained and equipped forces of CTS, the mission for the traditional Iraqi forces is difficult, because they are not well-trained on street-to-street battles," he said.
The 9th armored Division made initial advance in six districts in southeastern Mosul in the early days of Mosul battles but could not made further progress, while the army could not enter Mosul from the northern part of the city.
"The predominantly Shiite Hashd Shaabi units are not welcomed neither by the residents of the Sunni heartland in Mosul, nor by the U.S. officials who refuse to cooperate with the Iranian-backed units, for fear that their presence will provoke sectarian strife that may encourage many Sunni civilians to join IS group rather than being humiliated or killed by the Shiite paramilitary," Obeidi said.
However, the third option is to expect the international coalition troops to embed more extensively with Iraqi forces in an attempt to accelerate the anti-IS campaign which has slowed after quick initial advances, he added.
More than 5,000 U.S. troops are on the ground in Iraq as part of an international coalition that is advising local forces in a bid to recapture the areas that IS group seized in 2014 when Iraq's army and police dropped their weapons and fled.
A U.S. commander told media in an interview that the U.S. troops are stepping up their involvement to act closer with the Iraqi military units; like small U.S. special operations teams embedding with larger indigenous forces to help build capacity.
"We are deepening our integration with them (Iraqi forces), and we are now pushing that into more of the Iraqi formations," according to the U.S. Army Colonel Brett G. Sylvia.
As battles continue, civilians of Mosul in eastern and the western sides of the city are the most affected by the conflict.
Many of the civilians have been killed or wounded in crossfire, by IS snipers and deadly suicide truck bombings, let alone the suffering of famine, lack of medicine, water and fuel in the harsh winter weather inside the city and at the camps.
According to a recent report by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, up 116,490 people have fled their homes in Mosul and its adjacent districts since the beginning of military offensive in October to reclaim the IS largest stronghold in Iraq.
"If Abadi orders to facilitate the departure of residents, there would be a massive humanitarian crisis," Obeidi said.
"This is a challenging and compound equation, may we will need shocking surprises at the size of the dilemma; like the deployment of the U.S. troops, death or capture of al-Baghdadi that might lead to the collapse of the extremist group inside the city," Obeidi concluded.
All in all, the brutal urban fight for Mosul is succeeding, although slowly and costly, but is proving to be tougher than expected.
Earlier in the year, Abadi promised the Iraqi people and the world that IS will be eliminated in Iraq by the end of 2016. However, he told reporters on Tuesday that the Iraqi forces will need three months to eliminate IS group.
"In Iraq, I believe that conditions indicate that it needs three months to eliminate Daesh (IS group)," Abadi said in a press conference in Baghdad.
Abadi's comment came in response to the U.S. general commanding coalition forces in Iraq who predicted, in an interview, two years of battles to clear IS group from its twin capitals of Mosul and Raqqa, and then to fight the remnants who will likely flee to the vast empty desert between Syria and Iraq.
Mosul, some 400 km north of the Iraqi capital of Baghdad, has been under the IS control since June 2014, when Iraqi government forces abandoned their weapons and fled, enabling IS militants to take control of parts of Iraq's northern and western regions.