Special operations forces, artillery, rockets, and airpower are working overtime to back up thousands of Iraqi troops fighting to eject ISIS from the city.
- 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.
HAMMAN AL-ALIL, Iraq—Twenty four hours a day, American artillery booms from dug-in positions outside of this small town on the banks of the Tigris River, providing Iraqi troops pushing into western Mosul with accurate firepower within minutes of relaying the request through their American advisors.
The guns, U.S. Army Paladin mobile howitzers, can fire GPS-guided rounds anywhere in Mosul, about twelve miles to the north. Capt. Geoff Ross, who deployed with his battery here earlier this month, said that the targets have included everything from weapons caches pointed out by the Iraqis to specific Islamic State positions.
But the pace of the fighting has surprised his crews, who sleep inside the cramped vehicles each night so they can fire as soon as a call comes in.
“We’re firing a lot more than we thought we would be,” Ross said, as U.S. Apache helicopters roared overhead on their way to hunt ISIS positions within the city.
The Paladins make up just one piece of what looks to be a growing U.S. presence around Mosul, the scene of a months-long effort by Iraqi forces to wrest control of Iraq’s second-biggest city from ISIS.
At the nearby American Qayyara West airfield — long known as Q-West from when it was a much larger U.S. base several years ago — the 2nd Brigade, 82nd Airborne Division has settled in behind acres of new blast walls to protect its Apaches and RQ-7 Shadow surveillance drones, which buzz constantly over Mosul and its surrounding villages. Rows of heavily armored vehicles dot the base as hundreds of U.S. troops, part of the 5,000 in Iraq and Syria, construct new buildings and ferry in supplies for themselves and their Iraqi allies, all calling to mind the massive forward operating bases during the height of the American involvement in Iraq.
In a far corner of the base are two platoons of HIMARS guided rockets, which have fired several hundred rounds into Mosul in the past few weeks, said First Lieutenant Mary Floyd, who commands one of the platoons. She touted the rockets’ accuracy and minimal collateral damage; the HIMARS have GPS-guided rounds that drop straight down on target.
Meanwhile, U.S. special operations forces have pushed closer to the fight for Mosul in recent weeks, working with small groups of Iraqi soldiers to identify targets and call in air and artillery strikes, all while keeping ground units from getting tangled up with one another.
The two guns Ross commands sit in a muddy, gnat-infested field just behind the Iraqi Federal Police’s forward headquarters, where U.S. Central Command chief U.S. Gen. Joseph Votel landed by helicopter on Saturday to huddle with his Iraqi allies. The general received a briefing from commanders of the Iraqi police and Army units who punched their way into the contested western half of the city last week.
One U.S. military official in Iraq said that fighting over the weekend has been “rough,” and on Saturday alone, four Iraqi soldiers were killed and 53 others wounded. Earlier in the week, Gen. Votel told a group of American troops he was visiting in the region that the fight to take the eastern half of Mosul cost Iraqi forces 500 dead, with another 3,000 wounded in three months of fighting.
The Iraqis are taking “deliberate, small bites” out of the densely-packed city, said the official, who requested anonymity to discuss the ongoing battle. But he cautioned that the east side of Mosul — declared cleared in January after a three-month battle — remains “fragile and it has to be defended” against counter attack from ISIS fighters.
In Western Mosul, Iraqi forces are making real, if slow, progress. The official said that Gen. Abdul Amir, who was put in charge of wrangling the often parochial interests of the police, army, and counterterrorism forces, is “holding the coalition together” as they attack ISIS positions from multiple fronts.
Backing them up are many of the U.S. soldiers who had been located at other American outposts across the country. Iraq has thrown several elite units into the fight for Mosul, including the 9th Army division and all 14 battalions of U.S.-trained counterterrorism troops, but they need plenty of logistical support. Many U.S. troops are now at Q-West to help ferry ammunition and other supplies needed to keep the Iraqi forces advancing from three different directions.
The plan to push so many troops into the city from several different angles is meant to force ISIS into choosing where it can fight and what positions to abandon, the official said. ISIS “only has so much capacity” to mass fighters, he said, and when they gather in force, American planes, helicopters, and guided rockets strike them.
Photo Credit: Paul McLeary