IRBIL, Iraq (AP) — A senior U.S. military commander on Sunday praised Iraqi forces fighting to recapture the northern city of Mosul from the Islamic State group, saying they were "at their peak" and adjusting well to changing realities on the battlefield.
Brig. Gen. Rick Uribe told The Associated Press he agrees with the forecast given by Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi that it would take another three months to liberate Mosul, the last Iraqi urban center still in the hands of the extremist group.
"We are on pretty close to where we want to be," Uribe said, adding that military planners knew that while the initial push toward the city would be quick, progress would become "significantly" slower on the city's fringes.
Speaking in Irbil, capital of the self-ruled Kurdish region in northern Iraq, Uribe said Iraqi forces north and south of Mosul have made progress since a new advance was launched last week after a two-week lull in fighting.
A government campaign to liberate Mosul and surrounding areas in Nineveh province began in mid-October, but most of the major fighting inside the city has been done by Iraqi special forces, known as the Counter Terrorism Service.
Since the new offensive began, the special forces have pushed forward in at least two neighborhoods in the city's eastern sector, while the army's 9th and 16th Divisions also made headway south and north of the capital, respectively. The 9th Division was joined by units of the militarized Federal Police, while the 16th was bolstered by other army units.
Uribe said the Iraqi forces are "at their peak," and "will continue to improve because of the lessons they are learning on a daily basis."
Uribe said Iraqi forces, backed by a U.S.-led coalition, would face a different fight when they cross to the west bank of the Tigris River, saying it will mostly be a "dismounted" battle fought in part on narrow streets, some of which were not wide enough for a vehicle to pass.
"It will be a different fight and they will adjust as they go from the east to the west. They are already planning these adjustments," he said.
He went on to praise Iraqi efforts to avoid harming civilians.
"They have been extremely good at taking care of those civilians. I don't know whether you would have seen this a few years ago," he said. "That was part of the training (by the coalition). You got to treat people with dignity and respect. You cannot go into a city and make it worse than before."
Iraqi authorities have advised the estimated one million civilians believed to be still inside Mosul to stay in their homes until the city is fully liberated, but fears of getting caught in the crossfire have forced at least 120,000 residents to flee. Many are leaving because they have run out of food and money, or lack of essential services like water and power.
Uribe said the coalition airstrikes that targeted bridges on the Tigris inside Mosul were designed to cut off IS supply lines to their fighters in the eastern sector.
"Those bridges are not destroyed, they are only degraded. They will be fixed by the Iraqis fairly quickly once they retake the city," he said.
Uribe also said the U.S. has the "required" number of military personnel in Iraq at present. "You got to remember that we are here as guests of the government of Iraq, they've invited us, they've asked very specifically (for) what they need, what capabilities they need to be able to advise and assist them on the battlefield, not on the battlefield but in their battle," he said.
According to the Pentagon, there are 4,815 U.S. troops in Iraq, including special operations forces. The Obama administration has authorized a maximum troop level of 5,262. That number does not include as many as 1,500 troops on temporary duty or short-term contracts.