By Sabine Siebold
ERBIL, Iraq (Reuters) - Islamic State militants are expected to fight bitterly to hold onto their de-facto Iraqi capital, and the battle to retake Mosul will likely be a bloody one, a German major helping train local forces said on Thursday.
Major Rene Braun leads a group of 40 German soldiers who are training Kurdish peshmerga forces on how to fight the ultra-hardline militants at close range, in a reconstructed village near Erbil and another site that simulates a large city.
"Islamic State will fight long and hard, and then - as they've said themselves - they'll presumably regroup in north Africa," Braun told reporters.
"The big problem is that you are fighting at very short range and can't keep the enemy at any distance," he said, noting that such conditions tended to result in large numbers of injuries.
"This is my personal assessment, but the enemy will fight long and it could result in heavy casualties," he said.
With a population at one time as large as 2 million, mostly Sunni Mosul is the largest urban centre under Islamic State's control. Its fall would mark their effective defeat in Iraq, according to Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi.
Given the plethora of armed forces involved in fighting in Iraq, including the Kurdish peshmerga and the Popular Mobilization Forces, a government-affiliated coalition of mostly Iranian-backed Shi'ite Muslim militias, there are major concerns on how the offensive will play out and whether it could unleash further sectarian violence.
A major offensive by the U.S.-led coalition fighting Islamic State, which could begin as early as next month, could trigger a humanitarian crisis, with 1 million or more people potentially fleeing the city, U.N. experts say.
Florian Gottschalk, an official with Germany's Federal Agency for Technical Relief, said about 600,000 of those fleeing Mosul were expected to head to Baghdad. Another 200,000 to 400,000 were expected to go to northern Iraq, joining 1.6 million people that have already sought refuge there.
German Defence Minister Ursula von der Leyen pledged to support the Iraqi government in its fight against the group.
"We will continue to support them as we have in the past, be it in training, working cooperatively in emergency medical services, combating chemical weapons and defusing explosives," she told reporters.
Von der Leyen also pledged continued aid to Iraq in its efforts to dealing with the refugee crisis. An estimated 3.3 million people - or about 10 percent of the population - have fled their homes to get away from Islamic State militants.
Germany has supplied the peshmerga with weapons and munitions for the past two years. It also supplies equipment such as helmets and medical supplies to the Iraqi government, but no weapons.
(Writing by Andrea Shalal; Editing by Robin Pomeroy)