A major offensive to retake Iraq's second city of Mosul from Islamic State (IS) militants is planned to begin in April or May, according to a US military official.
20-25,000 Iraqi troops are being prepared to take on the 1000-2,000 IS militants in the city, a member of US Central Command, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told reporters on Thursday.
Iraqi government forces will make up a large majority of the force, but they will be joined by three Kurdish peshmerga brigades, the official said, adding that a small number of US troops could potentially be deployed alongside them to help direct air support. Kurdish commanders had previously said that they would not be involved in a move on the city itself, but would support Iraqi efforts.
The US is keen that the attack be launched in the allotted timeframe so as to avoid delays from the intense summer heat and Muslim holy month of Ramadan, the official said, although they admitted that commanders are prepared to push the date back if troops aren't ready.
Mosul fell to IS in June 2014 during a shock offensive in which the group seized a large part of northern Iraq. Most of the city's large defensive force fled — some without firing a bullet — despite vastly outnumbering their attackers. Many abandoned their weapons and even uniforms as they did so.
The US-led anti-IS coalition, which has been conducting airstrikes on the extremist militants as well as training and equipping peshmerga and Iraqi government forces, has recently focused on bombing IS targets around Mosul. Kurdish forces, meanwhile, are also stepping up an offensive in the region.
CentCom said on February 9 that peshmerga forces backed by US airpower had seized three IS bridgeheads on Tigris River's western bank, north of the city. They had already retaken a large area of Sinjar province to Mosul's West in a move that further encircled the city, cutting off supply lines from IS strongholds in neighboring Syria.
Retaking Mosul will not be easy, however. IS has built up a heavy presence there and it remains the largest urban area under the group's control — a key part of its self-declared caliphate, which stretches from neighboring Syria.
The extremist group is now preparing for the coming assault, and according to December reports, made plans to dig a trench around the entire city six-and-a-half feet deep by six-and-a-half feet wide. It is also said to have walled up a western entrance and demolished a bridge that opposition forces could use to attack the city.