Attack planes from the Maryland Air National Guard are aiding a major offensive to wrest control of Mosul from the Islamic State, joining an ambitious assault aimed at dislodging the terror group from its last urban power center in Iraq.
Col. Charles S. Kohler, a spokesman for the Guard, confirmed that the aircraft were taking part in the battle but declined to provide any further details for security reasons. A dozen A-10s and 280 airmen from the Guard's 104th Fighter Squadron deployed to the Middle East last week, just days before the fight to retake Mosul began. The planes are scheduled to be retired in 2020 and the deployment to fight the Islamic State could be their last.
Iraqi military forces joined with Kurdish fighters and Shiite militias on Monday to begin the approach on Mosul, Iraq's second largest city and a major Islamic State stronghold. Those forces — numbering around 25,000 — are backed by U.S. air power and artillery as they work to clear villages on the city's outskirts and confront an estimated 6,000 Islamic State fighters inside the city itself.
The Islamic State captured Mosul in a lightning advance in the summer of 2014 and a long-planned offensive to reclaim it has suffered several delays. The counterattack finally began Monday with a televised announcement by the Iraqi prime minister.
On Tuesday, Iraqi army forces advanced to the south and east of Mosul, reaching the outskirts al-Hamdaniyah, a historically Christian town also known as Bakhdida and Qaraqosh that was once home to tens of thousands, east of Mosul. On the southern front, Iraq's federal police pushed toward up to the town of al-Houd, still home to hundreds of people, according to estimates from the United Nations.
Monday, Kurdish forces had retaken some 80 square miles, according to Massoud Barzani, the president of Iraq's largely autonomous Kurdish region.
Peshmerga commanders on the ground estimated they retook nine villages and pushed the front line with the Islamic State back five miles. The front line east of Mosul stood some 20 miles from the city.
American officials have provided few details on how U.S. forces are aiding the effort. A Pentagon spokesman said Tuesday that more than 100 U.S. troops are embedded with Iraqi forces, including the peshmerga, as they advance toward Mosul.
Navy Capt. Jeff Davis told reporters the Americans are "well back" from the front lines as they advise the Iraqis and perform other tasks such as relaying information about potential airstrike targets. Hundreds of other U.S. troops are in support roles, such as processing intelligence and providing logistical help from Iraqi staging bases.
Kohler declined to say how many sorties the Maryland planes have flown as part of the battle or whether they have been involved in any strikes. The Defense Department announced that American and allied aircraft had hit dozens of Islamic State targets near Mosul on Monday, destroying mortars, artillery, and a facility for making bomb vehicles. On Tuesday, the aircraft destroyed one of the terror group's command centers, the department said.
A Maryland National Guard A-10 pilot described earlier this year how local commanders on the ground would relay requests for strikes by making cell phone calls. The A-10 specializes in flying low over the battlefield, using a giant cannon mounted in its nose to lay down fire and Capt. Katherine "Slam" Conrad said she could follow the action as peshmerga fighters worked to reclaim a town.
Loved by ground troops and pilots alike, the A-10 has been adapted from its original mission to destroy Soviet tanks, proving its effectiveness in the smaller scale battles that have characterized conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Air Force wants to replace the jets with the stealthy F-35, but its defenders say the newer aircraft won't be as good at striking targets on the ground.
The Associated Press contributed to this story.