Iraqi military forces backed by U.S. airstrikes and possibly American ground troops could launch an assault to wrest control of the city of Mosul from ISIS as early as April, a senior U.S. official told NBC News on Thursday.
As many as 20,000 Iraqi military and Kurdish forces could be involved in the operation to retake Mosul, Iraq's second-largest city, said the official with the military's Central Command (CENTCOM). If needed, U.S. ground forces - including special operations and forward air controllers - could be involved, too, the official said.
President Obama has said he would be willing to authorize the limited use of such ground forces if necessary.
The senior official stressed that despite some recent gains by ISIS, such as capturing the town of al-Baghdadi, U.S. and coalition airstrikes have taken a toll. "ISIS is in decline militarily," the official said. "They're losing ground every day."
But the official acknowledged Iraqi forces still face serious challenges: Thousands of Iraqi soldiers must undergo rigorous training before they can launch an assault on Mosul. Sunni tribes in the region, considered critical to any lasting military success, also remain reluctant to fight alongside Shia forces. "It's a work in progress," the senior official said.