Obama Expects ‘Difficult Fight’ for Islamic State-Held Mosul

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Iraqi forces in the Bajwaniyah village, south of Mosul, on Oct. 18.

Photographer: Ahmad aL-Rubaye/AFP via Getty Images
  • President says he’s confident of Iraqi government’s victory
  • Obama warns to expect both advances and setbacks in battle

An offensive by Kurdish and Iraqi fighters to retake Mosul from Islamic State will be a “difficult fight” but will ultimately end in a victory for the Iraqi government, President Barack Obama said on Tuesday.

“There will be advances and there will be setbacks,” Obama said Tuesday during a news conference with Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi at the White House. But he said he is confident Islamic State “will be defeated” in the battle that began on Monday.

Recapturing Mosul, the second largest city in Iraq, would deal a symbolic and strategic blow to Islamic State, limiting the ability of the terror organization to project influence over northern Iraq and undermining propaganda efforts. The group declared its intention to create a caliphate from the city in 2014, elevating its importance to the jihadist movement.

The U.S. is providing air support for the offensive, and American special forces are assisting Iraqi soldiers assaulting the city. But the White House has insisted that the fighting is led by the Iraqi government. Obama said Iraqi troops were performing “effectively and bravely.”

Administration officials have not said how long it will take for the campaign to root out the approximately 7,000 Islamic State fighters believed to be in the city and its environs. There is concern that a prolonged battle inside the city, with extremist fighters relying on suicide bombs and improvised explosive devices, could take a heavy toll on civilians.

Smoke rises from burning oil wells south of Mosul on Oct. 18.
Smoke rises from burning oil wells south of Mosul on Oct. 18.
Photographer: Bulent Kilic/AFP via Getty Images

‘Humanitarian Aid’

“In addition to rooting out ISIL, our focus jointly is on the safety and humanitarian aid for civilians who are escaping the fight,” Obama said, using an acronym for Islamic State.

The United Nations has warned the offensive could create a humanitarian crisis, predicting as many as 700,000 of the 1.2 million remaining residents could flee the fighting. The UN currently has refugee camps able to host around 60,000 people, but is working to construct 20 additional camps that could boost capacity to around 400,000. The president said there was “no doubt” there would be “heartbreaking circumstances” as some civilians sought to flee the war zone.

There’s also concern about the political aftermath. Mosul is a Sunni-majority city, and many of its citizens were angered by the lack of representation in the Shiite-controlled central Iraqi government in Baghdad. Moreover, the involvement of Kurdish fighters in the campaign has drawn criticism from neighboring Turkey, whose president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has intimated that he could deploy his military further into Iraq.

Obama said the coalition assaulting the city had made significant preparations for the aftermath of the battle. Failing to calm any political strife “makes us vulnerable to seeing ISIL return and feeding on the resentments in the aftermath of Mosul being liberated,” he said.

“There’s a strategic as well as humanitarian interest in us getting that right,” he said.

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