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Defense Official: Next Moves Against ISIS Up to Iraqis, 'No Matter What'

ARLINGTON, Va. — The U.S. military stressed that the next move against ISIS will be completely up to Baghdad, and “no matter what the government of Iraq decides to do next, we’re going to be there to assist them.”

“Any operation that takes place in the future, the Iraqi Security Forces will have the lead, will have made the decisions on the sequencing… it doesn’t matter what they decide to do next,” Col. Pat Work, commander of the 2nd Brigade Combat Team of the 82nd Airborne Division, told Pentagon reporters via video from Baghdad on Friday.

Work, who commands Task Force Falcon for Combined Joint Force-Operation Inherent Resolve and has been charged with the advise and assist mission, emphasized that “our role has not changed” since the U.S. started assisting the Iraqis before the Mosul offensive began in October. “Our mission remains the same. We have a common enemy, and we’re going to continue to help them attack ISIS.”

The colonel said that “we attacked ISIS in Mosul together, but the Iraqi Security Forces clearly lead this operation, and they’ll continue to do so…. we’re always advisers first.

The people of Mosul, he said, “endured vast physical injury, sexual predation and psychological trauma under ISIS.”

“Indeed, ISIS has exposed these people to extraordinary violence. However, the people of Mosul are resilient. The east side, less than six months removed from intense ground combat operations, is thriving in many areas. I saw with my own eyes again just three days ago,” Work said.

“…The Iraqis are liberating Iraqis, and they’re attacking our common enemy. They’ve already trounced ISIS in Mosul. They’ve retaken over 75,000 square kilometers of their country from ISIS. Nearly 2 million Iraqis have returned to their homes across the country. And in Mosul alone more than 350,000 children have returned to school… The Iraqi Security Forces, the government of Iraq will determine what the next objectives are.”

Iraqi News reported Sunday that ISIS evacuated its headquarters in Tal Afar, a city west of Mosul that is one of the areas on the Iraqi military’s to-do list, “due to its growing doubts over the people’s cooperation with security services, which contributed to the accurate airstrikes and inflicting losses on the group.” Those strikes included a field clinic for ISIS fighters.

Work described what west Mosul looks like after ISIS occupation and intense fighting to liberate the part of the city west of the Tigris. “About three years and a month ago, the people of Mosul had homes… [ISIS] took every single one of those homes and they turned it into a fighting position. And sometimes, there was three homes side by side. And those three homes that were parked side by side, ISIS knocked out every wall in between them. So, it took three individual family units and it made one massive fighting position. And in this one massive fighting position, as the Iraqi Security Forces approached over the last several weeks and months, it boobytrapped those homes,” he said.

“And it took the children’s room — and they cast off homemade explosives and its homemade mortar rounds in the children’s room. And it took the second floor, and it turned that second floor into a sniper’s perch complete with sandbags that hardened it, it camouflaged it,” Work continued. “And as the Iraqi Security Forces advanced, on what used to be a home, and is now just a fighting position, the boobytraps increased. And these boobytraps might be found in ovens, they might be found in closets, they might be found in the baby’s former room.”

At schools, Work noted, ISIS “sunk its baseplates for its mortars into the floor” and punched holes in the ceiling “so that that mortar could fire through the roof of that former school, knowing that the coalition always exercises constraint when it comes to schools that are made for children.”

“And the Islamic State would drape a tarp over the top of that hole that it put in the roof, so that they could fire mortars when they felt like, and then cover it, and try and help evade detection from some of our intelligence assets,” he said.

ISIS also turned the biggest hospital on the west side of Mosul, which stands on the highest piece of ground, into “its equivalent of the Pentagon, its equivalent of the municipal building, this hospital, into a massive fighting position.”

“And so, the Iraqi Security Forces, today, remain bravely in Mosul. And they’re looking for these weapons caches and they’re looking for these explosives and these bombs that are in the road and these boobytraps that are in houses. And it’s still extraordinarily dangerous because what ISIS has done to what used to be homes, schools, medical facilities,” the colonel said.

“And the Iraqi Security Forces still incur great risk every day. And their mission, in fact, during this transmission, is to render safe all of these explosives. So, of course, it’s very dangerous for them, yet they continue to do their jobs. And we continue to give them advice and assistance.”