The current attacks aimed at retaking ISIS-held areas in Northern Iraq are being supported by U.S. artillery fire on the ground, U.S. Central Command officials said.
Iraqi Security Forces have launched a series of offensive attacks to re-take villages from ISIS in the vicinity of Makhmour, an area south of Mosul where their forces have been preparing, maneuvering and staging weapons for a larger attack.
"The Iraqis have announced an operation in Makhmour to liberate several villages in the vicinity. The coalition is supporting the operation with air power," Col. Steve Warren, Operation Inherent Resolve spokesman, told Scout Warrior in a written statement.
U.S. Coalition ground artillery and airpower can include a wide range of assets, potentially including 155m Howitzer artillery fire, F-15Es, F-18s, drones and even A-10s, among other assets.
Although its clear the Iraqis do at some point plan to launch a massive attack to take back the ISIS stronghold of Mosul, these attacks may be merely "staging" exercises, one Pentagon official told Scout Warrior.
"Staging" exercises are often used by forces to consolidate power, demonstrate and ability to make gains and solidify preparations for a much larger assault.
"We announced months ago that shaping operations for Mosul have begun. This is part of that effort. The coalition support is focused on helping the Iraqis liberate Mosul and conducted in close coordination with the Government of Iraq," Pentagon spokesman Maj. Roger M. Cabiness II, told Scout Warrior.
Officials with U.S. Central Command explain that "shaping" exercises for a full offensive into Mosul have been underway for several weeks.
"We began the isolation of Mosul from Raqqa and central Iraq when the Peshmerga took Sinjar and Iraqi Security Forces, retook Tikrit and Bayji. Operations in the Euphrates River valley support the eventual battle inside Mosul by preventing Da'esh (ISIS) from reorienting forces to that fight, and preventing easy resupply of the fighters in Mosul," U.S. Central Command told Scout Warrior in a written statement.
At the same time, the U.S. military has established a special, separate fire base apart from Iraqi forces in Northern Iraq designed to protect Iraqi Security Forces massing in preparation for an upcoming massive offensive attack on ISIS-held Mosul, officials said.
The outpost, called "Firebase Bell," includes roughly a company-sized force of several hundred Marines. While U.S. military units have previously established a presence to defend Iraqi troops in other locations throughout Iraq, this firebase marks the first time the U.S. has set up its own separate location from which to operate in support of the Iraqi Security Forces, U.S. officials explained.
Armed with artillery and other weapons to defend Iraqi forces, the U.S. Marines have already exchanged fire with attacking ISIS fighters who have launched rockets at the firebase.
On March 19, ISIS forces launched two rocket attacks at the Marine Corps firebase, killing one U.S. Marine and injuring others, Warren explained while offering condolences to the family of fallen Marine Staff Sgt. Louis Cardin.
U.S. Marine Corps counter-battery fire was unable to destroy the location from which the rockets were launched, as ISIS is known to use mobile launchers and quickly abandon its fire location.
The Marines, who are from the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit, are armed with 155m artillery weapons able to reach targets at distances greater than 30-kilometers. The weapons are designed to thwart and destroy any approaching ISIS forces hoping to advance upon massing Iraqi forces or launch attacks.
When it comes to the eventual full assault on Mosul, Warren did not deny that U.S. military firepower from "Firebase Bell" might support attacking Iraqi Security Forces with offensive artillery attacks, but did not confirm the possibility either – explaining he did not wish to elaborate on potential future operations.
Overall, there are roughly 3,700 U.S. troops in Iraq, however that number could rise by a thousand or two in coming weeks - depending upon how many U.S. forces are temporarily assigned to the region.