WASHINGTON — Iraqi security forces, backed by U.S.-led air power and hundreds of advisers, are planning to mount a major spring offensive against Islamic State fighters who have poured into the country from Syria, according to U.S. and Iraqi officials. Such a counterattack is likely to face an array of logistical and political challenges.
The goal is to break the Islamic State’s occupation in northern and western Iraq, and establish the Iraqi government’s control over Mosul and other population centers, as well as the country’s major roads and its border with Syria by the end of 2015, the officials said.
Iraqi and Kurdish forces have made inroads in recent weeks in securing territory threatened or captured by the Islamic State, including the Rabia border crossing with Syria, the oil refinery in Baiji north of Baghdad, the northern town of Zumar, and Jurf al-Sakhar southwest of Baghdad.
But the major push, which is being devised with the help of U.S. military planners, will require training three new Iraqi army divisions — more than 20,000 troops — over the coming months.
“It is a balance between letting them develop their own plan and take ownership for it, and ensuring that they don’t stretch themselves too far and outpace their capability,” said one U.S. military official, who asked not to be identified because he was discussing war planning.
Although the United States began to carry out airstrikes to protect Irbil in August, the longer-term campaign plan has remained under wraps. Now that the planning has advanced, more than a dozen Iraqi and U.S. officials provided details about a strategy that is certain to become increasingly visible.
The basic strategy calls for attacking fighters from the Islamic State, also known as ISIS, with a goal of isolating them in major strongholds like Mosul.
That could enable Iraqi troops, Kurdish peshmerga units and fighters that have been recruited from Sunni tribes to take on a weakened foe that has been cut off from its supply lines and reinforcements in Syria, which are subject to U.S. airstrikes.
To oversee the U.S. military effort, a new task force is being established under Lt. Gen. James L. Terry, who oversees Army forces in the Middle East and who will operate from a base in Kuwait. Maj. Gen. Paul E. Funk II will run a subordinate headquarters in Baghdad that will supervise the hundreds of U.S. advisers and trainers working with Iraqi forces.
As the push to train Iraq’s military gathers momentum, the American footprint is likely to expand from Baghdad and Irbil to additional outposts, including Al Asad Air Base in Iraq’s embattled Anbar province in the west, and possibly Taji, 20 miles north of Baghdad.
The effort to rebuild Iraq’s fighting capability faces hurdles, including the risk that the Islamic State will use the intervening months to entrench in western and northern Iraq and carry out more killings.