AH-64 Apache gunships have been supporting Iraqi Security Forces in heavy fighting to expand a foothold in eastern Mosul by destroying Islamic State car bombs and makeshift barriers, the Pentagon said Monday.
“I can confirm that Apaches have been used with significant effect,” Pentagon Press Secretary Peter Cook said.
The Boeing Co.-made attack helicopters were using “standoff” fires to support the Iraqis, suggesting that the gunships were not flying over the city itself, he said.
“We anticipate that this nimble and precise capability will continue to enable Iraqi progress in what we expect will be tough fighting to come,” Cook said.
“My understanding is there’s been particular targets that have included VBIEDs and specific obstacles and impediments that we’ve seen ISIL put forward in Mosul,” Cook said, referring to vehicle borne improvised explosive devices and another acronym for the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.
“The Apaches have demonstrated a capability with very precise targeting to make a difference there, again, operating in a standoff position,” he said. “They’re able to do that from some distance back.”
The U.S. Army aircraft flying at night had been used to support Iraqi forces in the opening stages of the Mosul offensive, now in its third week, but the Pentagon previously had been vague on whether the Apache gunships would continue to be used once the advance reached the city limits.
Cook also said that U.S. advisors moving with Iraqi forces and Kurdish Peshmerga had not as yet accompanied them into the city but left open the question of whether they might do so as the assault continues.
“The decision going forward is something that will be determined by commanders working with the Iraqis,” he said. “I’m not going to predict the future.”
U.S. airpower was also being used to support the offensive announced Sunday by the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces against the proclaimed ISIS capital of Raqqa in northeastern Syria, which was being carried out simultaneously with the Mosul offensive, Cook said, but no decisions have yet been made on whether Apache gunships would also be used to aid in the isolation of Raqqa.
Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve reported that U.S. attack and remotely piloted aircraft carried out 18 strikes Sunday against ISIS targets in Syria, following on 15 conducted Saturday. The targets included 12 ISIS tactical units, six fighting positions, five vehicles, two vehicle bombs and a communications node, CJTF-OIR said.
“The beginning of the campaign to take Raqqa is compounding ISIL’s problems” along with the Mosul offensive, Cook said, forcing the terror group to defend two strongholds simultaneously and limiting ISIS’ ability to resupply and reinforce fighters.
However, “We do not underestimate the hard work ahead for the local forces that will carry out the fight for Raqqa,” Cook said, but “we will continue to support partnered forces on the ground as they begin the isolation of Raqqa.”
Cook made no mention of the political and diplomatic difficulties arising from the Raqqa offensive, which were the subject of Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Joseph Dunford’s previously unannounced visit to Ankara Sunday to ease the concerns of NATO ally Turkey.
The difficulties were underlined in the contrasting statements issued by the Turkish armed forces and the Pentagon on the substance of Dunford’s talks at Turkish military headquarters with Gen. Hulusi Akar, chief of the General Staff.
The U.S. said Dunford and Akar “agreed to continue to consult closely on the coalition plan to seize and hold Raqqa. The meeting occurred following the announcement of SDF operations that have begun to isolate ISIL in Syria and limit ISIL’s freedom of movement from Mosul into and out of Raqqa.”
However, the main fighting force in the SDF is the Syrian Kurdish Popular Protection Units, or YPG, which is considered a terrorist organization by Turkey. In clearing operations inside the Syrian border, the Turkish military has repeatedly attacked the YPG.
The Turkish armed forces statement on the Dunford-Akar meeting said they had an “exchange of ideas” on driving the YPG out of Manbij, a town north of Raqqa, and also discussed “carrying out mutual anti-terror operations” in both Syria and Iraq.
Dunford said following his talks with Akar that they had discussed a wide range of issues of concern to NATO ally Turkey. “Obviously as a close ally, we really just want to make sure that we’re completely tight as we work through some challenging issues,” Dunford told DoD News.
Dunford said that an actual assault on Raqqa was a long way off. “We always advertised that the isolation phase is going to take months,” he said, and he stressed that the YPG would not be part of the assault phase but would be limited to the encirclement of the city.
The SDF, with its large YPG contingent, “wasn’t the solution for holding and governing Raqqa,” Dunford said. “What we are working on right now is to find the right mix of forces for the operation.”