Iraq: The Battle For Mosul Begins


October 25, 2016: After a week the Kurdish and Iraqi forces have advanced faster than ISIL expected. Some Kurdish forces are within eight kilometers of the city and still advancing. The Kurds believe they would move faster and suffer fewer casualties if they had more resources. This the Kurds are trying to convince the Iraqi government to allow Turkish artillery, armor and other specialists to help out but the Iraqi government refuses to allow the Turks to get involved officially. The U.S. and other NATO nations are also pressuring the Iraqis to allow the Turks to help but the Iraqi Arabs don’t want the Turks to be able to take any credit for liberating Mosul from ISIL occupation. In any event some Turkish ground forces have been assisting the Kurds unofficially while Turkish F-16s have taken part in NATO air operations in support of the Mosul operation. As a NATO member Turkey has been providing air bases as well as warplanes for the NATO operations against ISIL in Syria and Iraq. No foreign combat units have been allowed into Iraq to fight ISIL. Advisers, trainers and specialists are another matter and there are about 10,000 of those, most of them American or from other NATO countries. While Iran only has about a thousand troops in Iraq (most of them from the Quds Force) Iran also prefers to keep the Turkish Army out of the Mosul attack force.

About 40,000 troops are closing in on Mosul. Most force consists of 20,000 Iraqi troops, including several thousand special operations specialists. There are several thousand police counter-terrorism and special operations commandos. The Kurds have 15,000 troops, a disproportionate number considering that Kurds comprise only about 20 percent of the Iraqi population. The Iraqi Arabs are not happy with this but the Kurds have the best troops in Iraq and have controlled more than half the cordon that has kept ISIL from advancing further into Iraq during the last two years. There are also several thousand fighters with local militias who are there mainly to handle security in areas ISIL has been driven out of. Finally there are several thousand foreign troops, all of them advisors or specialists (like American air control, intelligence or communications specialists).

Currently only a few thousand troops are in contact with the ISIL defenders. The initial advance is to clear roads (of landmines, roadside bombs snipers and other obstacles) so that more troops can get into the city. In addition the Kurds and local militias are clearing ISIL out of villages some of these militiamen (especially the Christians, Yazidis and other minorities) came from. Most of the troops involved with driving ISIL out of Mosul are there to provide security, not go looking for ISIL fighters. Normally ISIL does not like to stay in one place and fight because they tend to lose those battles. But using terror tactics is another matter. Thus the attack force emphasizing the need to deal with security and hidden dangers (especially explosive ones).

Inside Mosul armed resistance continues despite savage reprisals. The latest victims are hundreds (so far) of civilians seized and executed on suspicion of being part of an armed resistance. Many of those executed were innocent but ISIL apparently wanted or make a point. More civilians are being rounded up for involuntary service as human shields. There are still over a million civilians in Mosul and its suburbs. One week into the offensive it appears that ISIL has no more than 5,000 armed men inside the city and many of them are newly arrived foreign recruits who are in Mosul to die fighting. Hundreds of the newly armed ISIL defenders are people who joined ISIL to help build the “Islamic State” and have held administrative or technical jobs in Mosul. Most of the people ISIL is allowing to leave for ISIL controlled territory in Syria are women and children (the families of the ISIL gunmen in the city) or key technical experts or senior ISIL leaders. Outside of Mosul there are about thousand ISIL men left trying to delay the advance. That ISIL delaying forces was supposed to be larger but in addition to combat losses this force has suffered a lot of desertions. Evidence of this could be found in the captured tunnels recently built under some towns and villages. The tunnels were built to hold far more men than the advancing troops were encountering and some documents and graffiti left behind indicated that ISIL morale was declining as was the number of ISIL fighters willing to stick around for the final battle. The advancing Kurds and Iraqis report that they have killed over 800 ISIL men so far and while there are still plenty of landmines and roadside bombs there are fewer snipers or ISIL defenders of any sort.

After ISIL is cleared out of the many towns and villages on the outskirts of Mosul there will be a protracted battle to deal with ISIL fighters, and their many explosive devices, in the city itself. This could take months. The government may get away with declaring Mosul “liberated” at the end of 2016 but Mosul won’t be free of ISIL until several months later. After that the returning Mosul refugees will spend years rebuilding and dealing with undetected explosive devices left behind by ISIL. Most of the people trapped in ISIL territory for two years will need medical and food supplies. Many children have gone without vaccinations, which is especially urgent for polio. ISIL considers vaccinations un-Islamic or unnecessary and did little to maintain the public health system.

Chemical Warfare

Outside Mosul ISIL has, as expected, set fire to large quantities of oil. This was no surprise because since August there were indications that ISIL was going to do this and by September aerial photos showed ISIL using civilians to help with rigging oil and natural gas storage sites to be blown up when government forces approached. Many of the newly dug trenches were indeed filled with oil and set afire to delay advancing troops a few days before the offensive actually began Saddam Hussein used this technique in 1991 when an American led coalition advanced to drive Iraqi troops out of Kuwait. At the time the Iraqis believed the smoke would interfere with the use of laser guided smart bombs (which the American had been using since the Vietnam War). While smoke could interfere with some lasers the oil fires were not much use during the 1991 Gulf war. While only 16 percent of the 250,000 bombs dropped were guided analysis of the battlefield later revealed that the guided bombs had done 75 percent of the actual damage. Something new was needed to replace dumb bombs completely and the solution was GPS guided bombs which became widely available by the late 1990s and were unaffected by smoke or, as Saddam discovered in 2003, the GPS jammers he had bought from Russia. The ISIL use of burning oil and a chemical plant has caused a lot of casualties among local civilians.

Information Commandos

The initial advance on Mosul was largely to test the ISIL defenses and gather useful intelligence. The Kurds and Iraqi Arab commandos who led these columns had experience in this area and were quick to discover that the ISIL preparations were extensive (lots of suicide car bombs, landmines and other explosive traps) and also included, as suspected, lots of tunnels as well as the more visible trenches and bunkers. The tunnels were well stocked with supplied and weapons and apparently intended to hide ISIL fighters so they could emerge and attack after the town or village above was captured. The problem was too many hostile civilians (and constant aerial surveillance) were involved and the entrances to the tunnels were known. Some of the civilians forced to help with tunnel construction were able to get details out of ISIL territory and a number of these tunnel systems were quickly captured (or abandoned by demoralized ISIL men). The Kurds reported finding documents detailing what the ISIL men in the tunnels were there for.

The U.S. and other NATO nations have prepared to quickly analyze large quantities of captured documents the advancing Iraqis gather. These documents are usually electronic now but most paper documents are scanned to speed up analysis. Since 2001, when the U.S. found large quantities of al Qaeda and Taliban documents in Afghanistan, there have been increased efforts to grab as many of the abandoned documents as possible and analyze them as quickly as possible. Islamic terror groups continue to be sloppy about security when they are retreating. Professional forces are trained to destroy documents that might be captured. That is not always possible but it is far more effective than the Islamic terror groups that always have a few leaders who want to document things and get better organized. With cell phones, tablet and laptop computers it is possible for even very mobile Islamic terrorist groups to document and store data on what they have done, plan to do and with who and with what. Since 2001 Western nations have developed the capacity to analyze large quantities of captured data quickly enough to provide new targets within hours for ground and air attacks. Leaders of some Islamic terror groups, like ISIL and al Qaeda, realizes that the enemy now has this capability but have been unable to get enough of their less professional and trainable subordinates to adapt.

Different Interpretations Of Victory

ISIL has a different definition of success than their opponents and that plays a large role in how the Battle For Mosul is fought. Being on a Mission From God means that death is its own reward and losing Mosul is a minor setback because it is written that the Holy Warriors will eventually prevail and impose Islam on the entire world. Foreigners who pay attention to the cultural differences understand that. Non-Moslem locals understand what ISIL is up to which why Islamic terror groups are so determined to drive those “unbelievers” out. But some Moslem groups understand this mentality as well. Few Kurds were ever attracted to Islamic terrorism in part because it is largely considered an Arab thing. That’s because the Arabs have always had an attitude that while all Moslems are equal Arabs are a little more equal because the founder of Islam was Arab and the holy scriptures were first written in Arabic. Again, this attitude is alien to most Westerners but it is very important when dealing with Islamic terrorists. It explains all the suicide bombers and general disdain for dying or killing.

Most Arab Moslems are opposed to Islamic terrorists, if only because these fanatics consider any Moslem who does not agree with them an enemy. According to Islamic law heretics must be executed. The Arab and Kurdish troops advancing on Mosul expected to face numerous suicide car bombers and were trained and equipped to destroy most of them before they could get too close. This is only possible with well trained and disciplined troops. Most Kurds fit that description as do a growing number of Iraqi Arab soldiers. This also means the advance towards Mosul will be slow. The troops, even with their own small UAVs and assistance from the larger American UAVs and surveillance systems (special cameras and software to spot where explosive traps are most likely to be and where suicide car bombers are most likely based or will attack.) ISIL has responded by trying to armor their suicide bomb vehicles and give the drivers some useful training (not easy to do with the types of people they get for this job) on how to handle the heavier vehicle. The advancing troops know they will take casualties because even with all their training and tech, some of the attackers will get through or some of the troops will make a mistake.

Ethnic and religious differences found throughout Iraq are more of a problem in the north, where the Iraqi Kurds have (with American and British help in the 1990s) established an autonomous region. Iraqi Arabs do not approve of that but Iraqi Arabs are divided by religions differences. ISIL was created by Iraqi Sunni Arabs even though most Iraqi Sunni Arabs prefer to support the Iraqi government. Although Shia Arabs are the majority in Iraq (and currently control the elected government) they are divided between those who put religion (the Shia form of Islam that is dominated by non-Arab Iran) above national (to Iraq) loyalty and those who put Iraq first. All Iraqi Arabs see Iraqi Kurds as a threat. Then there is Turkey and a small (Turkoman) Turkish minority in northern Iraq. The Turks see this as justification to get involved in the battle for Mosul. Nearly all Iraqis oppose that because until 1918 Mosul belonged to the Turkish Ottoman Empire. After World War I the victorious British, wary of the new Turkish Republic eventually changing its mind and trying to rebuild that empire, detached Mosul province (and all its oil wells) from Turkey and combined it with the former imperial provinces of Baghdad and Basra to form the new country of Iraq. Since then Iraqi Arabs have always feared that the Turks would eventually try to take Mosul (and the rest of northern Iraq, including the autonomous Kurdish region) back.

Anbar Angst

The situation in Anbar Province is unsettled with continued ISIL resistance and an unhappy Sunni Arab population. The government has proclaimed ISIL defeated in Anbar but that is not the case. That is why the government was unable to provide September casualty data for Anbar. Iraqi media is focused on Mosul and continued Islamic terrorist attacks in and around Baghdad. This sad situation in Anbar was not unexpected. In August the government said that once all of Ramadi and all of the Syrian border in Anbar was under government control again the most effective units will be moved from Anbar to the outskirts of Mosul in preparation for the mid-2016 offensive there. It was feared that troops would be removed from Anbar before ISIL was crushed and that is apparently how it turned out. By late September troops in Anbar province finally cleared ISIL out of the suburbs west of Ramadi, the provincial capital. Ramadi is 120 kilometers west of Baghdad and astride the Euphrates river. The city was declared “liberated” at the end of the December 2015 but it wasn’t until two months later that the city was safe enough to allow refugees back in. Meanwhile ISIL was able to survive in several of the many towns and villages west of the city and along the river. The army is still busy clearing all the landmines and explosive traps ISIL left behind.

A lot of the fighting in Anbar has been in the Euphrates River Valley, which stretches from the Persian Gulf to Turkey. Along the way this river valley passes next to or through Baghdad, Fallujah, Ramadi and the ISIL capital of Raqqa in eastern Syria. Also on the river, some 200 kilometers from Baghdad is the al Asad airbase, where most of 2,000 or American and NATO troops in Anbar have been stationed since 2015. Only 60 kilometers west of Baghdad, Fallujah is the gateway between the desert-like region to the west and the densely populated Tigris-Euphrates river valley to the east. The city is actually a small peninsula surrounded on three sides by the Euphrates River. Anbar has always been largely Sunni Arab and that means a lot of supporters for any group that wants to put Sunni Arabs back in charge of Iraq (as they were for centuries until 2003). While the Anbar Sunnis learned to hate al Qaeda after 2006 and ISIL by 2015 they do not trust the Shia Arab majority that now runs an elected government. Pro-Iran Iraqi Shia militias sent to help deal with ISIL in Anbar had, as expected, some ugly side effects. Many Iranian and Iraqi Shia believe in revenge against real or suspected supporters of Sunni Islamic terrorists who continue to slaughter Shia civilians in Iraq, especially those visiting Shia religious shrives during Shia religious holidays. The government said it would control the murderous tendencies of the Shia militias in Anbar but that control was not tight enough and there were incidents. ISIL survives in Anbar and as long as ISIL controls the Syrian side of the border ISIL will continue to operate in Anbar.

October 23, 2016: In the west (Anbar Province) ISIL attacked the town of Rutba (population 20,000), near the Jordanian border. The attacks began with five suicide bombers followed by over a hundred gunmen. Within 24 hours some neighborhoods and several key roads were under ISIL control. Rutba lies astride a key road connecting Baghdad with Syria and Jordan. ISIL had been driven out of Rutba in May 2016 and tribal militias were largely in charge of local security since then. More soldiers and police were sent after the recent attack and local tribes sent in more militiamen as well.

October 21, 2016: Turkish F-16s bombed suspected PKK bases on both sides of the Turkish border in northern (Kurdish) Iraq. The Turks claimed 12 PKK members killed on the Turkish side of the border and six on the Iraqi side. That is a continuation of the conflict between Turkey and the PKK (Turkish Kurdish separatist rebels) based in northern Iraq and southeastern Turkey. This latest outbreak began in July 2015. Since mid-2015 this fighting has left over 7,000 people (mostly PKK) dead. The fighting has mostly been in Syria and Turkey. Turkish warplanes continue to seek out and bomb PKK bases in more remote areas of Kurdish Iraq. Growing PKK violence inside Turkey were seen as a violation of the 2013 ceasefire with the PKK. The Kurdish government of northern Iraq agreed with the Turkish attacks on the PKK. While the PKK still calls for an independent Kurdish state made up of majority Kurd portions of Turkey, Iraq, Syria and Iran, the largely autonomous Kurds of northern Iraq refuse to go along. For a while many in the PKK agreed with the Iraqi Kurds and were willing to settle for more autonomy in Turkey. But the radical PKK factions refused to go along and the 2013 ceasefire began to fray. While the Iraqi Kurds continue condemning the PKK they have not tried to expel the PKK fighters by force. The Turks are unwilling to send a lot of ground troops into northern Iraq and seem content to keep bombing the PKK there. This the Iraqi Kurds and Arabs tolerate, especially since the Turks are now also bombing ISIL in Syria. Turkey joined the air campaign against ISIL in Syria includes letting American fighters launch strikes from a Turkish airbase.

October 20, 2016: In the north, over 60 ISIL gunmen and suicide bombers attacked targets inside the Kurdish controlled city of Kirkuk. This was apparently a pre-planned operation meant to force the Kurds to withdraw forces that are advancing on Mosul to increase security in Kirkuk. The disruptions in Kirkuk lasted about 24 hours. By then most of the ISIL attackers were dead as were about half as many civilians, police and soldiers. Within three days 51 ISIL men had been killed while the ISIL effort left 46 people dead, most of them soldiers and police. ISIL did not get to destroy or seize any of the high-profile targets (government and military compounds) they were after. Worse, the Kirkuk operation did not cause the Kurds to pull any forces away from the advance on Mosul.

Outside Mosul an American EOT (Explosive Ordnance Technician) died when his vehicle was hit by a roadside bomb. The dead sailor was one of over a hundred American advisors and EOTs who were accompanying a Kurdish column advancing on Mosul.

October 19, 2016: Outside Mosul ISIL set off explosives in a chemical plant. The purpose of this was to release large quantities of sulfur gas. In large concentrations this can kill and at least two civilians in a nearby village died and dozens of others. Approaching troops had gas masks they could put on, or training on how to avoid a fatal dose of any industrial chemicals ISIL might release outside the city. The fire at the chemical plant is expected to produce large quantities of noxious gas for two or three days.

October 18, 2016: Outside Mosul, bear the Syrian border, Iraqi and Arab airstrikes largely destroyed a convoy of 30 vehicles carrying foreign ISIL members and some wives and children to Raqqa. Later aerial photos showed the remains of over two dozen vehicles and it appeared that a hundred or more people were killed. This is not the first such attack and it adds to the ISIL morale problems in Mosul and other parts of occupied Iraq.

October 17, 2016: The government announced that the battle to drive ISIL out of Mosul had begun. Most of the initial moves were by Kurds plus a large force of Iraqi counter-terrorism commandos. Most of the Kurds (at least three columns) advanced from the north while another Kurdish led column advanced from the southeast. The larger Iraqi column advanced from the east.

October 15, 2016: In Baghdad an ISIL suicide bomb attack at a funeral killed 34 Shia mourners and wounded nearly 40. This is the worst such attack since July and one of several since late September that have left over 60 Iraqi Shia dead.

October 7, 2016: Turkey openly called on Iraq to ban Iran controlled Iraqi Shia militias from joining the fight to retake Mosul. Turkey pointed out that the 2,000 Turkish troops in Iraq had trained thousands of Sunni Arabs and Kurds who are sufficient to do whatever the Shia militias say they will do. Moreover many of the Sunni Arabs Turkey has trained are from Mosul while the Iran supported Shia militias are seen as a real threat to Sunni civilians in Mosul. The Shia Arab Iraqi government is caught in the middle of this. Most Iraqi Arab Shia, including those running the government, want to keep Iran and Turkish influences out, if only because for nearly a thousand years Turks and Iranians have fought over and taken turns ruling what is now Iraq. This only ended after 1918 (the end of World War I) when Britain assembled Iraq from parts of the defunct Turkish Ottoman Empire and set it free. Most Iraqis don’t appreciate that either but that’s another story.

October 5, 2016: In Mosul ISIL detected and disrupted an uprising organized by a local ISIL official and dozens of his associates in the city. The plan apparently included killing senior ISIL leaders and supporting a general uprising by city residents. ISIL forces seized weapons and explosives gathered for the uprising and arrested and executed over 60 people, most of them ISIL members. Apparently ISIL members with families in the area believed ISIL was doomed, or at least likely to lose Mosul and that the families of local ISIL members, especially leaders, would be the targets of revenge attacks and possibly extermination (an ancient tradition in the region).

October 2, 2016: In the north, in ISIL controlled portions of Kirkuk province, ISIL lost about twenty suicide bombers and bomb builders over the last five days in two incidents where suicide bomb vests went off accidentally. This was a side effect of hurried ISIL preparations to launch a major suicide bombing campaign in nearby Kurdish controlled territory, especially the city of Kirkuk, which Kurdish forces gained control of in late 2014 along with nearby oil fields. The Kurds had been fighting ISIL in Kirkuk soon after ISIL took Mosul in June 2014 and advanced into Kirkuk province with the intention of seizing Kirkuk city. By August American air support for the Kurds halted the ISIL advance towards Kirkuk about 40 kilometers southwest of the city. But ever since Kirkuk (population 400,000) had to be defended against ISIL counterattacks and that tied down a lot of Kurdish troops.

October 1, 2016: Iraqi deaths from terrorist (mainly ISIL inspired) violence were up more than 45 percent in September (to 1,003). Casualties in Anbar were not available for September nor were the growing losses in ISIL controlled Mosul (both civilian and ISIL members). Thus the actual September deaths are probably 1,800 or more. This comes after a decline of nine percent in August (to 691). July saw an increase of 15 percent (to 759) over June (662). The July losses are closer to what they were in May (867). This continues a downward trend that began earlier in the year (April 741, March 1,119, February 670, January 849). Civilians accounts for most of the August because ISIL is losing on the battlefield and concentrating on terror attacks against civilians, mainly in Baghdad. That’s where most of the civilian deaths occur and most of the dead there are Shia civilians. The total 2016 deaths are expected to be at least 20 percent lower than the 13,400 in 2015 and continue the downward trend after the last peak (15,600) in 2014. That’s still a big increase from 2013 when 8,900 died and only ten percent of those were terrorists while the majority were Shia civilians killed by Sunni Islamic terrorists. While 2015 was 14 percent less deadly than 2014 both years were much less than the worst year. That was 2007 when nearly 18,000 died. Then as now the main cause of the mayhem and murder was Sunni fanatics who want to run the country as a Sunni dictatorship.

Iraq was a lot less violent than neighboring Syria where the combat related deaths are expected to be higher in 2016 than the 55,000 in 2015. That was a 38 percent decline from the 76,000 in 2014. That’s over 69,000 dead (down 24 percent from 91,000 in 2014) for the two countries where ISIL is most active. The death toll has declined in both Iraq and Syria because ISIL has become less effective and in Syria there is a lot more war weariness. Most of the rebels and government forces in Syria were just playing defense in 2015 and even ISIL was less active in attacking compared to 2014. But that changed in 2016, especially after August 2015 when Russian forces arrived. A year later Turkish troops entered Syria in large numbers and everyone would like to eliminate the ISIL presence in Syria and Iraq by the end of 2016. That might be possible, but 2017 seems more likely.

Precise data on ISIL losses is hard to come by but that is less of a mystery as more ISIL territory is taken and more deserters and prisoners can be interrogated. The U.S. is also deliberately going after ISIL leaders in Iraq and Syria with commando raids to grab documents (usually on laptops, smart phones, and USB drives) that accompany these men. In August American military intelligence revealed that since September 2015 ISIL appears to have lost 25,000 fighters in combat (mainly in Syria, Iraq and Libya). Thus about 45,000 ISIL fighters have died since 2013. It’s believed that ISIL currently has only about 20,000 fighters available, mostly in Syria and Iraq. There are a few thousand more in northern Libya, eastern Afghanistan and Egypt. In all five countries ISIL is under heavy attack.

The Turkish parliament extended the military operations in Syria and northern Iraq for another year. So far Turkish troops and FSA (Free Syrian Army) rebels have advanced to a position 80 kilometers east of Aleppo and outside the town of Manbij.

September 29, 2016: The U.S. revealed that its aerial surveillance and airstrikes had found and killed at least 18 senior ISIL officials in September. Most (12) of these were killed in Iraq, in or near Mosul. The rest were found and killed in Syria.




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