HAMAM AL-ALIL, Iraq (AP) — During a visit south of Mosul on Monday, a senior U.S. official praised territorial gains against the Islamic State group in Iraq, but local officials cautioned more aid is needed to rebuild on the heels of victories against the extremists.
The Mosul fight is approaching its “final stages,” Brett McGurk, special presidential envoy for the global coalition against the IS, told The Associated Press during a meeting with Iraqi military and civilian officials at a water treatment plant near the town of Hamam al-Alil.
“The world is now seeing that (Iraqi) soldiers are completely destroying Daesh,” McGurk said, using the Arabic acronym for the Islamic State group that is also referred to as IS, ISIS and ISIL. He described the fight to retake Mosul, which was launched nearly seven months ago, as one of the most difficult urban battles since World War II.
But the men who had gathered to receive McGurk and U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Douglas Silliman were dressed in suits, not fatigues and they had come asking for aid, not weapons and training.
With the fight against IS in Iraq about to enter its fourth year, more than half of the territory the extremists once held is now under government control, but with those advances has come greater demand for reconstruction money.
The U.S. military footprint in Iraq has steadily grown in the build-up to and throughout the Mosul operation, but U.S. funds for humanitarian relief and stabilization remain a fraction of defense spending in the IS fight.
“We are looking for more support as the west side of the city will be liberated soon,” Maj. Gen. Muhammed al-Shimary with Nineveh Operations Command told McGurk after thanking him for U.S. assistance in the fight so far.
Last year under the Obama administration, McGurk emphasized the need for a balance between “speed and sustainability” in the fight against IS.
“Before you launch a major operation you have to have in place who is going to hold the city, who is going to govern the city,” he told the Senate foreign relations committee during testimony in June 2016.
However, U.S. President Donald Trump has pledged to accelerate the military fight against IS. While the White House is yet to release an official overhaul of the IS fight, since taking office Trump has handed greater decision making power regarding troop levels in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan to the Pentagon.
Additionally, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has emphasized the limited role the U.S. will play in reconstruction in Iraq and Syria.
“As a coalition we are not in the business of nation-building or reconstruction,” Tillerson said during a meeting of foreign ministers in Washington in March. Instead, he said the U.S. would equip “war torn communities to take the lead in rebuilding their institutions and returning to stability.”
As of March 31, the Pentagon has spent $12.5 billion on the fight against IS in Iraq and Syria with daily costs averaging $13 million since the operation was launched in 2014. Over the course of the same time period, U.S. contributions to humanitarian assistance in Iraq have been a fraction of that: $1.3 billion with just $350 million going to stabilization projects like the water treatment plant south of Mosul.
For Mosul alone, Nuraddin Qablan, the deputy president of the Nineveh provincial council said an estimated $100 billion would be needed to “put the city of Mosul back on its feet again.”
The operation to retake Mosul from IS was formally launched in October and while the initial weeks of the fight were marked with a string of swift territorial gains, combat in the city’s west has devastated infrastructure and inflicted high civilian casualties.
In March, more than 100 people were killed in a single strike in western Mosul, according to witnesses interviewed by the AP. The U.S. acknowledged its forces launched the strike, but did not confirm that it resulted in civilian casualties. The Pentagon is conducting an investigation into the incident.
More than 410,000 civilians remain displaced by the fighting and clashes have injured more than 12,000, according to the United Nations. The number of civilian casualties only counts those who were referred to hospitals in the Mosul area. Hundreds more civilians receive treatment at frontline clinics inside the city.
Iraqi troops are working to surround Mosul’s old city, where the last battles of the operation are expected to play out. In a statement on Sunday, Lt. Gen. Abdul-Amir Rasheed Yar Allah said government forces began clearing IS from four neighborhoods on the Old City’s edges.
In the Old City alone, IS fighters are believed to be holding more than 200,000 civilians hostage as shields, a factor likely to further slow the pace of operations.
McGurk declined to say when he expected the operation to conclude, but said victory was “really just a matter of time, anyone left in there will have to surrender or they’ll die.”
Al-Shimary, the Nineveh operations command official who met with McGurk on Monday, said while the humanitarian situation in Mosul’s east — which was declared liberated in January — appears to be improving daily, he expects the city’s west to pose a greater challenge.
Associated Press writer Salar Salim in Irbil, Iraq contributed to this report.