The much-awaited liberation of Mosul from ISIS stalled late last month almost as soon as bullets flew, when Iraqi government troops once again fled from the black-clad terrorist army, members of the broad coalition poised to retake the key city told FoxNews.com this week.
The Iraqi army, which was heavily criticized for abandoning posts – and weapons – as ISIS moved in on Mosul in June of 2014, had begun taking small villages on the outskirts after Baghdad announced the campaign March 24. But the liberation effort, which was to include Shia and Sunni militias, Kurds, Christians and Yazidis with U.S.-led coalition support, was quickly paused when the opposition struck back.
“The Iraqi Army commenced an assault on ISIS strongholds around Mosul, but when ISIS fired back, the Iraqi Army ran away and the assaults ended,” a western, Iraq-based security and defense specialist told FoxNews.com of last week’s failed offensive. “So now they are regrouping and rethinking their next options.”
“They retook some territory but fled shortly (afterward,) during the nighttime.”
- Yakhi Hamza, Iraq's 1st New Allied Expeditionary Force
Iraqi officials claimed the operation came to a halt when they determined they needed reinforcements to hold onto the villages they took. Iraqi Army Maj. Gen. Najm Abdullah al-Jubbouri said ISIS fighters had dug a network of tunnels and had suicide bombers and truck bombs waiting for them.
U.S. Army Maj. Jon-Paul Depreo, operations officer for the international coalition fighting ISIS in Iraq and Syria, said some of the Iraqi army troops were unfamiliar with the territory, contributing to the decision to temporarily freeze the campaign.
“These [Iraqi army] forces aren’t from that area necessarily, so they’re learning the area,” Depreo told reporters in Baghdad.
In a dramatic announcement last month, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said "Operation Conquest" was Phase I of the retaking of Mosul and would involve capturing areas around Mosul to use as staging areas for future operations. The towns and villages targeted were all roughly 50 miles outside of Mosul.
The Iraqi Army reportedly has around 4,500 troops lined up for the Mosul campaign, augmented by untold numbers of loccal militia and Kurdish forces. The army is equipped with U.S.-supplied Humvees and a top-of-the-line cache of artillery, anti-tank missiles, air craft, infantry weapons and ammunition.
Pausing the effort is another humiliation for Baghdad, and the army the U.S. has spent years and billions of dollars training. The Iraqi Army came under harsh criticism two years ago following revelations that many fighters dropped their U.S.-issued weapons and fled their posts as ISIS approached Mosul, not only abandoning their posts but allowing their advanced weapons to fall into militant hands.
Mosul, which once boasted a population of 2 million, has been the terrorist army’s Iraqi headquarters since it was taken. ISIS is believed to be holding thousands of civilians in the city that could be used as human shields. In addition, thousands of Christian, Kurdish and Yazidi captives, including girls and women held as sex slaves, are believed to be held in the city.
Yakhi Hamza, director of The 1st New Allied Expeditionary Force, a volunteer aid organization that includes Western and Allied Veterans and works with the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) in northern Iraq, said the stalled Mosul campaign showed the Iraqi army still may not be ready for battle.
“They retook some territory but fled shortly (afterward,) during the nighttime,” he said. “There hasn't been progress so far.”
The Iraqi forces did reclaim three villages just outside Mosul from ISIS, ones situated on the perimeter of Makhmour, a medium-sized town between Mosul and the Kurdish capital of Erbil. But the prime initial target of Operation Conquest, the town of Qayyara, on the western bank of the Tigris River, remains under ISIS control.
Hamza said the failed effort is a public relations coup for ISIS.
“It negatively affects the whole process,” he said. “ISIS uses these defeats for more propaganda and morale boost of their fighters.
“Nobody is optimistic about the ability of the otherwise well -equipped and trained Iraqi Army to retake the city,” he added. “Even if ISIS were pushed out of Mosul in the long run by the greater support from Peshmerga and [U.S.-led] Coalition, there is fear that they push the offensive towards Baghdad.”
No date has been set for when troops will try again, with sources telling FoxNews.com that it will more than likely be many months away and possibly not even this year. In the meantime, ISIS is sure to further dig in, planting more IEDs and booby traps and continuing to manufacture chemical weapons at the labs of Mosul University.
Observers believe the next time Iraqi forces attempt to liberate Mosul, they will be backed by a heavy U.S. presence on the ground. Already, an undisclosed number of American troops are in the area to provide cover and logistical support.
“Yes, additional U.S. assets are here to try and help, but still not in the numbers needed to be effective,” said one Iraq-based American contractor. “Mosul will be a different nut than all the other cities to crack. I do not see how the Iraqi Forces are in any way ready to start a major offensive.”
Farther south, the Iraqi forces have been more successful. The Anbar provincial capital of Ramadi was liberated from ISIS late last year, and with the assistance of coalition airstrikes, it has been estimated that the Islamic terrorist group has lost over 40 percent of the land it once held in Iraq.
The liberation of Ramadi came at a cost, as much of the city was demolished by the onslaught of Iraqi troops and by fleeing ISIS fighters. National and coalition forces are hoping to avoid the destruction of Mosul.
For those trapped inside Mosul, hope for liberation has been put on hold. On Tuesday, some 18 civilians were executed by ISIS after being charged with “collaborating with the Baghdad government,” a day after the group publically slaughtered 14 of its own fighters under similar accusations.
“Everyone lost hope,” said one Iraqi whose family is still stuck inside the city. “Knowing that something has started gives them something to live for.”
Those civilians may need to help whenever the next effort to retake Mosul begins, said Moen Al Kadimi, deputy of the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMU), a local force which works with the Iraqi army.
“The actual liberation should start from within, following coordination with locals and forces around the city to start the revolt,” he said. “We are waiting for government support and re-arming so we can move forward toward Mosul.”
Hollie McKay has been a FoxNews.com staff reporter since 2007. She has reported extensively from the Middle East on the rise and fall of terrorist groups such as ISIS in Iraq. Follow her on twitter at @holliesmckay