As Iraqi and Kurdish forces tighten the noose around Islamic State fighters in Mosul, the U.S. is helping them blast through enemy defenses.
The offensive to liberate Mosul is in its third week. Iraqi security forces and Kurdish fighters plan to advance to the center of the city, but the Islamic State group has thrown suicide car and truck bombs against them to slow their progress. Bad weather has led to a temporary halt in the operation.
Islamic State fighters have had more than two years to prepare fortifications in and around Mosul, but the U.S. is providing air and artillery support to obliterate obstacles in the Iraqis and Kurds' path, said Lt. Gen. William Beydler, head of Marine Corps Forces Central Command.
"The fires that are being delivered are very, very, precise; very, very effective; and Daesh is under attack everywhere they turn," Beydler said, referring to the Islamic State by its Arabic acronym.
Based in Tampa, Florida, Beydler commands Marines in the U.S. Central Command theater of operations, which includes Iraq, Afghanistan and Yemen. Between 3,500 and 5,500 Marines are in the region at any given time, half of whom are aboard ships, Beydler said Wednesday in an interview.
Right now, several hundred Marines are serving in Iraq, he said. Marine-led Task Forces Al Asad and Al Taqaddum are supporting two Iraqi army brigades moving toward Mosul with aircraft and artillery, he said.
"We work with our own fires, and we make sure that it’s coordinated with the Iraqi security force movement and maneuver," Beydler said. "We make sure that the fires are cleared. We have target engagement authorities and we retain that for ourselves to make sure that the fires are being properly in support of the Iraqis."
The Army provides artillery support to the Iraqis and the Marines are contributing land-based AV-8B Harriers to the fleet of aircraft that is helping the Iraqis penetrate the Islamic State's defenses around Mosul and take out any enemy weapons supporting those obstacles, he said.
"Obstacles without fires in support of them are not much of a problem," Beydler said. "We’re helping them take care of some of those problems from air and surface-delivered fires."
The U.S.-led coalition is also providing the Iraqis with intelligence, training on how to find and destroy roadside bombs, and equipment such as bulldozers that allow Iraqi security forces to breach Mosul’s defenses, he said.
"The Iraqi security forces are making good progress," Beydler said. "They continue to make progress. The progress was slow in Ramadi. It was much faster in Fallujah. It was faster still in Rupa and Shirqat. They’re moving very, very fast on the time line that they set towards Mosul."
While Iraqi security forces are moving according to their plan, Iraqi government officials have not said how long they expect the Mosul operation will last, he said.
"I wouldn’t estimate a time myself," Beydler said. "It’s not going to be easy. Daesh has been there for some time. It will be a tough fight as it gets closer to the center of the city. What we see at this point would indicate that Daesh is falling back; they’re being beaten at every tactical engagement; and it’s just a matter of time."
As U.S. aircraft pound Mosul and U.S. advisers work with their Iraqi counterparts who are advancing on the city, the Marines are standing by in case they are needed to conduct a rescue mission.
"You can imagine, if you are an operator in an advise-assist role with Iraqi security forces — or for that matter, anywhere in the region — or you are an aircrew, you’d like to know that somebody was at the ready to come get you if you ended up in a predicament," Beydler said.
The "young, tough, hard Marines" who are responsible for the tactical recovery of aircraft and personnel mission are always ready to fly in with MV-22B Ospreys to rescue a downed pilot or a service member, he said,
"I can’t think of anybody better I’d rather see if I was in extremis than one of our young Marines getting out of the back of an MV-22," Beydler said.