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U.S. weighs options to speed Iraq's fight to retake Mosul

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States is willing to deploy Apache attack helicopters and advisers to help Iraq retake the city of Mosul from Islamic State as it considers options to speed up the campaign against the militant group, a top U.S. general said on Monday.

A fighter of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) holds an ISIL flag and a weapon on a street in the city of Mosul, Iraq, in this June 23, 2014 file photo. REUTERS/Stringer/Files

U.S. officials, including President Barack Obama, have said they want to accelerate the campaign against Islamic State militants, and have called on allies to increase their military contributions to efforts to destroy the group in Iraq and Syria.

U.S. Army Lieutenant General Sean MacFarland, the head of the U.S.-led coalition battling Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, said he is looking to retake Mosul as quickly as possible, but did not say whether he agreed with Iraqi estimates that it could be wrested from Islamic State control by the end of this year.

“I don’t want to put a date out there,” MacFarland said. “I would like to get this wrapped up as fast as I possibly can.”

Past steps to speed up the campaign have included the deployment of dozens of U.S. special operations forces in northern Syria, and an elite targeting force to work with Iraqi forces to go after Islamic State targets.

It could also include deployment of more military and police trainers, including from the United States. MacFarland said the U.S.-led coalition has trained more than 17,500 Iraqi soldiers, and about 2,000 police, with another 3,000 soldiers and police in training now.

MacFarland said the proposals he is drawing up do not necessarily require the commitment of more U.S. troops, who have largely stayed away from the front lines of combat. Instead, coalition partners could contribute troops, he said.

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“As we extend operations across Iraq and into Syria ... there is a good potential that we’ll need additional capabilities, additional forces to provide those capabilities and we’re looking at the right mix,” MacFarland said.

The United States is also ready to send Apache attack helicopters and deploy advisers to help Iraqi and Kurdish forces retake Mosul if requested, MacFarland said. U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter said in December that the United States was ready to send the advisers and helicopters if requested by Iraq to help in the fight to retake Ramadi, but Iraqi officials did not ask for the extra help.

Iraqi forces retook Ramadi, a provincial capital just a short drive west of Baghdad, late last year.

“We can’t inflict help on somebody, they have to ask for it, they have to want it, and we’re here to provide it as required,” MacFarland said. “Everything that the secretary said is really still on the table.”

Reporting by Yeganeh Torbati; Editing by Jonathan Oatis