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BAGHDAD – Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi says Islamic State group fighters lack the courage to put up long-term resistance in Mosul, despite unleashing hundreds of car bombs that have killed and maimed Iraqi soldiers and civilians as the fight for Iraq's second-largest city appears set to extend well into next year.
"We have seen the whole organization collapsing in terms of standing in the face of our own armed forces," al-Abadi said. "The success of liberating a huge area indicates that Daesh does not have the gut now or the motivation to fight as they were doing before," he added, using the Arabic acronym for the extremist group.
In an interview Monday with The Associated Press, al-Abadi said Mosul was now completely encircled and that the speed with which the area was secured surpassed his expectations. He declined to say how many Iraqi troops have been killed since the operation began six weeks ago but said the rate of battlefield losses was "sustainable."
The prime minister said he expects the incoming Trump administration to grant Iraq a greater degree of logistical support in its war on terror, and dismissed suggestions by Donald Trump in the election campaign that he would seize some of Iraq's oil production as a kind of "reimbursement" for U.S. efforts in Iraq.
Trump said in September that he would "take the oil" from Iraq, claiming that the Iranians would step in otherwise.
"I am not going to judge the man by his election statements," al-Abadi said with a smile. "I am going to judge him by what he does later."
He called Trump, who he spoke with by phone soon after his election victory, a "pragmatic man" who would reassess the situation once in office. But Iraqi oil, he said, belongs to Iraqis. "The Iraqi people will not allow any country to take possession of their own resources," he said in the interview held at one of Saddam Hussein's palaces inside the heavily-fortified Green Zone in the Iraqi capital.
Al-Abadi stood by previous pledges that Mosul would be retaken this year, despite increasingly slow progress on the ground. Iraqi forces control roughly a tenth of the city proper.
Iraqi commanders in eastern Mosul say IS resistance there has been fiercer than anything they have seen previously in the fight against the militants, who have targeted Iraqi troops with hundreds of car bombs.
Heavily armored and often packed with enough explosives to disable tanks, car bombs have long been the deadliest weapon the militants use against Iraqi forces. In past operations, U.S.-led coalition airstrikes were often called in to take out the bombs, but in the cramped fighting conditions in Mosul's residential neighborhoods, the explosive-laden vehicles often appear with little warning and the presence of civilians thwarts the use of airstrikes.
Since al-Abadi took office two years ago, Iraqi forces have retaken more than half of the territory IS held at the height of its power, when the militants' controlled a third of the country.
Pressing north from Baghdad, mostly Shiite militia fighters first pushed IS out of large parts of Diyala and Salaeddin provinces, including Saddam Hussein's hometown of Tikrit.
In the north, Kurdish and Iraqi forces recaptured the strategic mountain town of Sinjar, blocking a road that was once a common transit point for militants and weapons. To the west, Iraqi forces under cover of coalition airstrikes retook the cities of Ramadi and Fallujah in Anbar province.
Today Mosul is the last urban stronghold IS holds in Iraq and liberating it will lead to the extremist group's eventual demise as its ability to recruit foreign fighters and attract financing dries up, al-Abadi said.
"This is like a snake, if you hit it in the middle or the tail, it's no use. I have to hit it on the head," he said. "And the head of this terrorist organization is Mosul. If I remove Mosul from them, this is a huge blow ... to its efforts to recruit young people from different countries of the world."
Unlike past operations, in the Mosul fight al-Abadi's government has called on residents to stay inside their homes — a strategy that has slowed the military's advance. But he said it was necessary to avoid creating a humanitarian disaster by fleeing residents overwhelming camps as winter approaches.
"This is the first time where we are liberating a city or a place where civilians are staying at home," he said. "It's tough, it's difficult because the security forces tell me they are being fired at from places where there are civilians and they cannot reply in kind. So, this is a very tough thing."
Al-Abadi said he expects to see even greater U.S. support for Iraq under a Trump administration.
"I think it is in the interest of the United States and Iraq to keep this relationship," he said. "In my telephone call with President-elect Trump, he assured me that the U.S. support will not only continue, but it is going to be increased. So, I think I am going to be looking forward to more U.S. support."
While the presence of U.S. troops has at times been controversial in the eyes of al-Abadi's political opponents, U.S. involvement in Iraq has steadily increased on his watch. There are now some 6,000 U.S. troops in the country, including 100 special operations forces embedded with Iraqi troops for the Mosul operation, according to the Pentagon. Iraqi commanders have said U.S.-led coalition airstrikes have been essential in retaking territory.
But while Iraq has witnessed an impressive string of territorial victories against IS under al-Abadi, the country is in many ways more divided politically than ever. Iraq's Kurds are laying claim to additional territory inside Nineveh province on the sidelines of the Mosul offensive and the country's parliament continues to be dominated by powerful political blocs capable of gridlocking government.
"We have moved quite far in terms of reaching out to our own population," al-Abadi said of progress toward greater reconciliation between the country's religious and ethnic groups.
He said there had been "a huge reversal" in terms of communities now welcoming the Iraqi military in a way that would once have been inconceivable.
In the wake of the fall of Mosul to IS more than two years ago, Shiite militia forces have grown increasingly powerful under al-Abadi, a Shiite. The groups have proven to be some of the most capable ground forces against IS, but have also been accused of abuses against civilians. In the Mosul fight, Human Rights Watch accused the militia groups of beating and detaining villagers southeast of the city where they are operating.
Al-Abadi acknowledged that some militia fighters have been found guilty of committing abuses against civilians. He said many had been sentenced to death for crimes they have committed and that he would investigate any further reports of misconduct.
"Any time I hear there is a violation or abuse, I immediately start an investigation into it. My role is not to cover up for the crimes of others," the Iraqi leader said. The Shiite militiamen "are mainly volunteers, Iraqi nationalists who rise up to defend their own country. They are prepared to sacrifice their own lives, their own families for the defense of Iraq."
Associated Press writer Susannah George contributed to this report.