After the brutal slog to clear eastern Mosul, Baghdad is throwing all its chips on the table to finish off the last ISIS stronghold in Iraq.
- By Paul McLearyPaul McLeary is Foreign Policy’s senior reporter covering the U.S. Defense Department and national security issues. He joined the Washington office in 2015 after working for Defense News, where he was also on the Pentagon beat, and covered stories relating to Pentagon spending and the defense industry. While there, and in a previous incarnation as a New York-based reporter, Paul embedded with U.S. Army and Marine Corps units in Iraq and Afghanistan to cover ground combat operations, where he got inside a secretive drone program being run out of Bagram air base. He has also traveled with the U.S. Navy, covered NATO meetings in Europe with the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and stalked major international arms shows in Paris and London.
BAGHDAD — Iraqi forces managed to snatch some key terrain from Islamic State militants in the western half of Mosul, U.S. and coalition officials said here Thursday, marking the end to a fierce first day of fighting to liberate Iraq’s second-largest city after more than two years of terrorist occupation.
In a sign of how hard-fought is the battle for Mosul, Iraqi army and police forces, backed by U.S. and French airpower, are hitting Islamic State, or ISIS, from three directions. All 14 battalions of Baghdad’s elite U.S.-trained counterterrorism service, the CTS, are pushing in from the west, close to the Iraqi army’s 9th Division which is moving with heavy armor.
Further south, federal police battled their way through the airport, securing most of it by nightfall, while U.S. and French fighter jets and drones, and U.S. Apache helicopters pounded Islamic State targets from above, called in by American special operations forces working on the ground with Iraqi units.
For the government of Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, which is under fire from rivals who lambaste weak security and continued terror bombings in the capital, as well as corruption, the fight for the city is by far Baghdad’s highest priority. Retaking Mosul would deprive the Islamic State of its last urban stronghold in Iraq, and would be a major victory for Abadi’s embattled government.
The prime minister spoke with U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on Thursday, his office said, receiving assurances of U.S. support for the fight against Islamic State. (The U.S. State Department did not mention the call or offer any readout of what the men discussed.) Those assurances are needed: Earlier this month, the Trump administration incensed Baghdad with its hastily drafted, poorly implemented travel ban which prohibited Iraqis — including translators who’d risked their lives to help American soldiers — from entering the United States. Iraqi lawmakers sought reciprocal limits on American citizens.
Coalition officers said that the Iraqis are using a new strategy to take the densely populated western half of Mosul, several weeks after wrapping up the punishing, three-month slog to liberate the heavily industrialized eastern half of the city. That fight, while ultimately successful, was costly. Gen. Joseph Votel, the head of the U.S. Central Command who arrived in Baghdad on Thursday, said that about 500 Iraqi troops were killed and another 3,000 were wounded in three months of fighting.
To avoid that, Iraqi forces this time decided to attack the militants from three directions in an attempt to confuse the defenders and deny them the ability to concentrate on any one front.
Islamic State fighters spent the day “attempting to respond to the Iraqi maneuver but it hasn’t been effective,” said New Zealand Brig Gen. Hugh McAslan, the deputy commanding general of the U.S.-led ground effort in Iraq and Syria. He said the Iraqis have advanced further than where coalition planners thought they would be by the end of the first day of fighting.
His early assessment of Islamic State movements on the first day of fighting is that “it is apparent that there’s a degree of confusion in how they are operating,” and that is something the Iraqi forces need to exploit.
However, the toughest fighting lies ahead, once the government troops begin to make their way through the tight, winding streets in what is expected to be weeks of house-to-house combat. Some officials estimate that somewhere between 4,000 to 6,000 Islamic State fighters remain in the city, with the foreign militants likely to fight to the death. Coalition and Iraqi officials believe the Islamic State has laced the city with booby traps and hidden bombs, and crisscrossed Mosul with a latticework of underground tunnels to evade air attack and to outmaneuver advancing forces.
There are also concerns over the ability of the CTS to continue fighting at the pace it has for the past year. The force has been in the lead in the grinding, months-long fights for Fallujah, Ramadi, and Baiji, and has had little rest between the urban battles.
There are about 750,000 civilians still trapped in Mosul, which the Islamic State has held since it seized the city in a lightning raid in the summer of 2014, when the U.S.-trained Iraqi army essentially melted away and many Sunni civilians backed the invaders over the mostly Shiite government force.
In the week before the latest assault kicked off, U.S. aircraft dropped 158 bombs on Islamic State positions in the city, partially in an attempt to decapitate the senior leadership still directing forces there.
The idea for the three-pronged assault came, in part, from hard lessons the Iraqis learned last month when taking the al-Saleem hospital in eastern Mosul from ISIS in a bitter fight. The Iraqis attacked from two directions, throwing the defenders into disarray, something McAslan said was a “defining moment” in the fight since it showed how confused Islamic State gunmen became when pressured from multiple directions at once.
The battle plan was formalized during a three-week “operational pause” Iraqi forces took this month, in which they replenished broken equipment, brought in reinforcements, and consolidated their positions in the east. They also took the time to reposition their forces for the new assault with the 16th Division holding in the east.
While the fight in Mosul rages on, the Popular Mobilization Force — a mostly Shiite militia that has formally been made part of the Iraqi armed forces — moved into position in the west, between the nearby ISIS-held town of Tal Afar and the Syrian border, where they’re being supported by Iraqi air force F-16s.
Iraqi officials are keen to keep as much coalition support as possible after a seemingly successful first day in western Mosul, pointing to the possibility of an open-ended U.S. commitment to supporting the fight against the Islamic State.
“There will be a period going forward, especially in the Ministry of the Interior, where we will have help from the American side and coalition forces,” said Saad Mann, a spokesman for the ministry. That military support will be needed “for the coming years” he said.
Photo Credit: AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP/Getty Images