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December, 5, 2016

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Battle for Mosul more than a climactic military operation

WASHINGTON -- More is riding on the battle for Mosul than the recapture of the Islamic State's main stronghold in northern Iraq. Also on the line is the Obama administration's theory that the extremists can be defeated in Iraq, Syria and elsewhere without American ground troops doing the fighting.

For more than two years, the administration has stuck to its argument that the only path to a sustained victory over the Islamic State group is for locals, not Americans or other outsiders, to bear the main responsibility for the fighting and for governing after the extremists are removed.

President Barack Obama has taken a lot of political heat for that approach, which critics say has allowed IS to expand its international reach and influence.

The viability of Obama's strategy has been widely doubted. In May 2015, after months of U.S. bombings in Iraq and while in the midst of Americans training and advising Iraqi ground troops, the Iraqis lost the city of Ramadi. Defense Secretary Ash Carter publicly said he doubted the Iraqis' will to fight. Since then, the U.S. support role has grown and the Iraqi security forces have managed to retake key parts of western and northern Iraq, including Ramadi.

Mosul is different, not least because it is the place where Islamic State leaders in 2014 announced their intent to create an Islamic-run state after taking a large swath of Iraq and Syria in a lightning surge.

White House press secretary Josh Earnest on Monday called Mosul a new measure of Obama's strategy.

"And I think the president would be the first to acknowledge that this is a significant test," he said, given the size of the city and its importance to IS. "Dislodging them from the city would be a significant strategic gain," Earnest said.

U.S. airpower played a key role in the run-up to the fight for Mosul by taking out Islamic State defenses, cash resources, supply routes and some of the group's leaders. The U.S. is now providing air cover as Iraqi security forces and members of the Kurdish militia begin their attempt to retake the city over the next several weeks. American advisers are working with Iraqi troops, but the outcome will be determined largely by the Iraqis.

A Crown Jewel

Mosul may answer the question: If the Islamic State loses a crown jewel of its so-called caliphate, will that be a decisive and sustainable victory for Iraq? Or will Baghdad once again falter, allowing sectarian and political divisions to destabilize the country and permit a return of extremists?

That likely won't be known before Obama's successor takes office. The next president also will inherit the broader problem of Syria -- not just the IS presence there, including in its self-proclaimed capital of Raqqa, but also the civil war with its complications involving Russia, Iran and Turkey.

Iraq remains deeply divided, and the grievances among the country's Sunni, Shiite and Kurdish populations that allowed IS to rise to power in the first place have not been resolved. Even if the Mosul campaign is successful militarily, there is a risk of violence erupting again in the form of revenge killings or clashes between groups once allied against a common enemy.

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