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Australia joins the fight for Mosul

AAP logoAAP 21/10/2016 Max Blenkin, Defence Correspondent

Iraq has seen its share of bloody battles but the long-planned offensive to retake Mosul, the country's second biggest city, is fated to be brutal above all.

Islamic State forces are expected to fight to the bitter end, exploiting the city's long-suffering civilian population by using them as human shields, routinely resorting to suicide tactics, riddling streets with improvised explosive devices and maybe even using chemical weapons.

Entrenched IS fighters will prompt the obliteration of entire city blocks by bomb and artillery.

Civilians who survive this fighting will flee in large numbers, prompting a humanitarian crisis likely to exceed preparations made by the Iraqi government and international aid agencies.

The battle could continue for months and Australia will play a part.

From high overhead, precision laser and GPS-guided bombs from six RAAF F/A-18 Hornets will destroy IS fighting positions in shattering explosions.

A RAAF KC-30A airborne tanker will refuel Australian and other coalition aircraft while a RAAF E-7A Wedgetail will manage the air space in a process termed deconfliction.

It could certainly get crowded - aircraft from Australia, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, France, Jordan, the Netherlands, UK and US have all conducted airstrikes inside Iraq.

Though Mosul will be the main game for the rest of the year, it's unlikely all aircraft from all coalition nations will be flying over the city at any time.

Australian aircraft operate from bases in the United Arab Emirates, a lengthy round trip which limits their rate of effort, unless arrangements are made to stage from closer airfields.

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi officially announced the start of the Mosul offensive on Monday but preparations have been under way since the city's fall to IS forces in mid-2014.

That was a low moment in Iraq's recent military history - 30,000 Iraqi soldiers withered before an IS force of perhaps just 1500.

There were many reasons for the dismal performance - this was a poorly led army, hollowed out by corruption and sectarianism of then Iraq's then prime minister Nouri al-Maliki.

The failure was the genesis for the Building Partner Capacity mission and deployment of the joint Australian and New Zealand training team which began training members of the Iraqi army at Taji, north of Baghdad, in April 2015.

Iraqis passing through Taji weren't raw recruits - many had seen action against IS - but training started with basic marksmanship then moved to more advanced tactics for house-to-house fighting, all intended to prepare them for Mosul.

So far 14,312 Iraqi soldiers have been trained by the 300 Australians and 100 New Zealanders of the training team.

These soldiers, ranging in age from teens to crusty veterans, will be an intimate part in the battle for Mosul. Some Iraqi soldiers interviewed by Australian reporters in Taji earlier this year even came from Mosul and still had family in the city.

Likely spearheading the assault will be Iraq's "Golden Division", the elite Counter-Terrorism Service, a force of some 10,000 well-trained, well-equipped and motivated soldiers.

Their involvement could take some Australian special forces soldiers closer to the front line than any other Australians.

The 80 members of the Special Operations Task Group have advised and assisted a brigade of this unit, including what Defence terms "remote-based joint terminal attack control".

That involves facilitating air strikes at the request of Iraqi forces from a position behind the front lines.

Targeting remains a complex process, with requests conveyed from the front lines, approved by the Iraqi government and ticked off at the coalition air and space operations centres in Qatar, including, if appropriate, by Australian officers and military lawyers for compliance with rules of engagement.

At a media briefng in July Chief of Joint Operations Vice Admiral David Johnston said the collaboration between Australian and Iraqi special forces had proved highly effective in battles to retake Fallujah and Ramadi, both expected to be difficult.

Both fell faster than expected, with fewer Iraqi casualties than anticipated.

Admiral Johnston said some of that was attributable to improving capabilities of the Iraqi Army which proved more adept at countering Islamic State tactics.

One consequence of the rapid fall of Fallujah in late June was that a large group of IS forces sought to withdraw in two long vehicle convoys. Hundreds were killed in ensuing air attacks.

At this stage, no-one is anticipating Mosul will fall quickly or easily.

Joint Operations Command, which overseas Australia's contribution to this fight estimates 6-8000 IS fighters remain in Mosul - some may be Australian - powerfully entrenched within the remaining civilian population, estimated at anywhere from 500,000 to a million.

Still IS fighters can have few illusions. They now control half the Iraqi territory they did in the heady days of 2014. Relentless air strikes limit their movement - no longer can they travel openly in large convoys, their black flags flapping.

Australia's job in Iraq won't end with the fall of Mosul.

The training mission has been extended , with Task Force Taji soon to start teaching Iraqi police the skills needed to hold onto territory retaken from IS.

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