NEW YORK — President Barack Obama and Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi put the Islamic State group on notice Monday that they plan to recapture the city of Mosul within months. If successful, the operation could mark a major turning point in the campaign to defeat the extremist group.
Neither leader glossed over the immense difficulty of the battle ahead as they met in New York on the sidelines of a U.N. summit. Still, Obama said he and Abadi were confident that Iraq’s military and the U.S.-led coalition could make progress in Mosul “fairly rapidly,” adding that he was hoping for progress by year-end.
“This is going to be hard. It’s going to be challenging. It will require resources,” Obama said. But he professed confidence that more territory can be wrested from the militants, in part because he said “the Iraqi forces are getting more confident.”
Abadi, speaking in English, echoed Obama’s timeline for retaking Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city and the extremist group’s stronghold in the country. He called the group a “huge threat” to Iraq’s stability.
“We hope within the next few months we’re going to kick Daesh out of Mosul,” Abadi said, using an Arabic acronym for the group. He added: “They must be crushed on the ground.”
The aggressive timeline reflects Obama’s hopes of notching another major victory against IS before he leaves office in January and hands the conflict off to his successor. Donald Trump and other Republicans have blamed Obama’s decision to pull U.S. troops out of Iraq for fueling the extremist group’s formation and its growth into the world’s most serious terrorist threat.
Both leaders want to move quickly in Mosul to take advantage of recent momentum against IS in Iraq and the perception that the extremists’ morale is waning. In neighboring Syria, the chaotic civil war continues to hamper the fight against IS, but in Iraq, the extremists have lost half the territory they once held, according to the U.S.
Capturing Mosul, the last major city IS controls in Iraq, would constitute both a symbolic and strategic defeat to the militants. The U.S. and its partners hope a successful Mosul offensive will set the stage for eventually ousting the group from Raqqa, the largest IS-held city in Syria and the de facto capital of the group’s self-declared caliphate.
Yet military experts have warned that retaking Mosul is an incredible arduous task that plays to the extremist group’s advantages, including its ability to embed among civilians. The battle will require huge numbers of troops and street-by-street combat. In preparation, Iraq’s military has been amassing troops and retaking a string of towns in the vicinity of Mosul.
Equally daunting to military planners is the prospect that the battle could displace some 1 million people.
Washington considers the Iraqi government’s handling of the displacement as a major test of reconciliation in Iraq, given the blend of sectarian groups with an interest in the northern city’s future. To the Obama administration’s relief, Abadi has proven to be a more inclusive leader than his predecessor, Nouri al-Maliki, whose sectarian approach led many Iraqi Sunnis to see IS as a more welcoming alternative.
Obama said he and Abadi had focused on ensuring that food, water and shelter are available for those displaced and that Mosul can be quickly rebuilt, so that desperate residents don’t turn to “extremist ideologies” for relief and allow the Islamic State group to return.
“A lot of our work today has been focused on making sure that that happens,” Obama said.
Obama’s meeting with the Iraqi leader marked the start of a hectic week of diplomacy as he makes his final appearance as president at the annual U.N. gathering. Even as he and Abadi focused on recent progress in Iraq, the situation was growing grimmer in Syria, where President Bashar Assad’s military on Monday declared the end to a week-old cease-fire and a U.N. humanitarian aid convoy was hit by airstrikes.
The president also held a meeting with Chinese Premier Li Keqiang in which both countries condemned North Korea’s recent nuclear test and pledged closer coordination on addressing the nuclear threat from Pyongyang. Obama also discussed climate change, the global refugee crisis and terrorism during a phone call with Kenya’s President Uhuru Kenyatta.
Associated Press writer Darlene Superville contributed to this report.
Reach Josh Lederman on Twitter at http://twitter.com/joshledermanAP.