Iraq: Another Day Another Neighborhood in Mosul

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November 21, 2016: The battle for Mosul has captured over a third of the city on the east side of the Tigris River. About 60 percent of the city is east of the river and in the last two weeks advancing troops have entered or cleared about a dozen ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) held neighborhoods. There are 40-50 (depending on who is counting) neighborhoods in the city and the most difficult fighting is expected on the west side of the Tigris. On the east side you have several open or park type areas, including the ruins of the ancient city of Nineveh and the Mosul University campus. The government wants to capture the city by the end of the year and that may be possible. The major obstacle is the need to minimize friendly casualties and civilian losses.

It is unclear (or at least has not been made public) what the ISIL battle plan is. Yesterday the ISIL commander of forces east of the Tigris was killed in the fighting. The ISIL defenders are depending on landmines and hidden bombs as well as snipers and suicide bombers on foot and in vehicles to slow the advance. The defenders appear to be mostly unskilled, which is most obvious when troops are hit by sniper fire. The shooting is often poor and the shooters are not as well hidden as experienced snipers. It appears that the more experienced ISIL fighters have left the city. This includes those who built and planted most of the bombs and prepared the suicide bombers. Based on past experience it would appear the several thousand defenders (some estimates go as high as 6,000) in Mosul don’t expect to survive the battle. The way this works a certain percentage of the volunteers will try to desert or surrender if an opportunity presents itself. For that reason the quality of the defense depends on how many dependable leaders you can afford to leave in the city and lose while supervising the inexperienced and often unreliable fighters. There is a chance that ISIL will run out of front line leaders and the largely unsupervised defenders will lose a lot of their number to desertion or inaction (because there is no one with some experience to tell them what to do next). Even with that a large percentage, if not the majority, of the defenders have enough determination to die fighting and the advancing Iraqi troops all understand that. Another problem the army commanders have is the ISIL policy of trying to use civilians as human shields whenever possible. Civilians who have gotten out of the ISIL occupied parts of the city recently report ISIL rounding up civilians for this duty.

ISIL has prepositioned suicide vehicle bombs, often enhanced with hastily applied metal plates to protect the driver from machine-gun fire. The advancing troops are well trained and often experienced in effectively dealing with suicide bomber attacks. They can often spot one on foot and shoot him before he gets close. Vehicle suicide bombs are another matter because not only are many of these vehicles armored but they are often well hidden and the drivers only have to come out of the building they are in and travel a short distance to the target. A lot of the aerial surveillance, especially with UAVs, over Mosul is in an effort to spot these vehicle bombs and destroy them before they can be used, or, if a missile armed UAV or helicopter is nearby, quickly destroy the speeding vehicle bomber. Its dangers like this that slow the advance.

The military believes its attack on Mosul has, since October 17th, killed about 3,000 ISIL defenders. About a third of those were killed in ground combat with advancing troops and the rest by air strikes away from the ground combat. Over a hundred ISIL men have been captured (or surrendered). About 40 percent of the airstrike deaths were caused by Iraqi aircraft while the rest were by the American led coalition. A lot of the airstrikes take place at night as ISIL efforts to move are spotted and attacked from the air or, if close enough to the front like, artillery.

There are over a million civilians inside Mosul and in the suburbs where fighting is, or likely will, take place. Several hundred thousand of these civilians could be refugees before the battle is over and about 60,000 already are. The attacking force is all Iraqi as are most of the ground controllers calling in air strikes (mainly by American and Iraqi aircraft and helicopters) and they are careful to avoid hitting civilians. The use of the best trained troops (Arab special operations forces and veteran Kurd fighters) has greatly reduced casualties among the attackers and been demoralizing to the ISIL defenders. While there are about 100,000 troops involved in the attack most of them are providing security in cleared areas and manning the blockade around the city. The actual advance is handled by less than ten percent of the troops. Even with all these precautions civilians are getting killed and so far about 20 percent of the wounded among the attackers are civilians. There is also a growing problem with a lack of hospital facilities to handle the 30-40 new casualties day coming from the combat zone. There are actually a lot more wounded but many can be patched up near the front and do not need extended hospitalization.

Troublesome Tal Afar

West of Mosul ISIL has lost control of the city of Tal Afar, on the Syrian border. ISIL occupied Tal Afar since late June 2014 and it was a key transit point for anyone or anything moving to or from Mosul and Syria. Until 2007 Tal Afar was mainly a Turkoman (Turkish) town with large Sunni and Shia Arab minorities. Between 2003 and 2007 al Qaeda terrorized the Turkomen (for not being Arab but are Sunni), murdered the Shia and used the town as a base for bringing in foreign recruits via Syria. Back then the Shia rulers of Syria (the Assad clan) were willing to tolerate Sunni Islamic terrorists as long as they were just passing through and behaving themselves as they did. Now Tal Afar is still important to Sunni Islamic terrorists (ISIL) in Iraq because the city controls the main road from Mosul to Raqqa (the ISIL capital in eastern Syria). The battle for Tal Afar was fought largely by the Iran-backed Shia militia although they have been told that only Iraqi army troops will be allowed in the city itself. Meanwhile the Shia militias are helping to seal the border. With the main road from Mosul to Raqqa now blocked it is more difficult but not impossible to travel between Syria and Mosul. Most of the senior ISIL personnel and their families have already left Mosul but those remaining face a longer, and more dangerous, journey if they decide to head for Raqqa.

The Shia militias were allowed to take the Tal Afar airbase, which ISIL seemed to have abandoned. But after a few days the Shia militiamen withdrew from the airbase after taking dozens of casualties from the landmines and booby-traps scattered randomly all over the base. One problem with the militias is that they don’t have many specialists, like bomb disposal troops or military engineers of any sort. Now the army will have to send in its over worked bomb disposal forces eventually. Meanwhile the airbase has been declared off limits. Even with that some civilians will try to sneak in and do some looting.

Meanwhile In Anbar

Anbar Province is benefitting from the fighting in Mosul because now any reinforcements ISIL can send from Syria go to Mosul, not Anbar. The local population (mostly Sunni Arabs) are somewhat relieved. In October the government proclaimed ISIL defeated in Anbar but that was not entirely true and still isn’t. The government was unable to provide September casualty data for Anbar because the security situation is still unsettled. That situation improved in October but now Iraqi media is focused on Mosul and continued Islamic terrorist attacks in and around Baghdad.

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 would be moved from Anbar to the outskirts of Mosul in preparation for the 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. It is feared that the same pattern will be encountered in Mosul, which is why it is so important for there to be a major offensive against Raqqa.

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.

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.

The Information War

ISIL is being forced to admit it is losing ground in Mosul. Although ISIL is not expecting much useful propaganda to come out of the battle for Mosul they cannot ignore the extensive video coverage the battle is receiving from the other side. This gets worse as the media coverage plays up things ISIL would prefer to keep quiet. Thus we have the mass graves of civilian victims of ISIL violence being uncovered. The media also dwells on the extensive use of teenage fighters by ISIL to defend Mosul in what is basically a suicide operation. Then there are all the videos of failed suicide bomber attacks (on foot and in vehicles). Not the kind of image ISIL wants to put out there and fewer Moslems are ready to volunteer for or contribute to ISIL.

Turkey

Iraq refuses to do anything about the thousand or so Iranian Kurds who are fighting alongside Iraqi Kurds against ISIL in northern Iraq. The complaints (from Turkey and Iran) are prompted in large part by these Iranian Kurds speaking openly of fighting to defend “Kurdistan”. The autonomous Iraqi Kurds of northern Iraq play down these attitudes, which assume that Kurdistan consists of Kurdish majority areas in Iraq, Iran, Turkey and Syria. Turkey has long complained to Iraq about PKK (Turkish Kurd separatists) operating in northern Iraq and voicing the same attitudes. Meanwhile Iraq continues to tolerate occasional Turkish air attacks on PKK camps in remote parts of northern Iraq. Since mid-2015 the Turks and PKK have resumed their decades of fighting and Turkey claims that in the last 22 months some 700 security personnel and civilians have died along with some 8,000 PKK members. This includes those bombed in Iraq (and Syria). Meanwhile in Iraq the Turks are not happy with the Iran-backed Shia militias being allowed to go after ISIL defenders of Tal Afar, a city between Mosul and the Syrian border. Turkey considers Tal Afar a “Turkish city” because several decades ago half the population was Turkoman (a Turkish group related to the Turks who dominate Turkey). Saddam’s ethnic politics and the post 2003 Shia Arab governments have changed that and now the Turkomen are simply the largest minority in Tal Afar. The Iraqi government is telling the Turks, the West and its Sunni Arab allies that only Iraqi army forces will enter downtown Tal Afar and will thereafter control the entire city.

Iran is also accusing the Iraqi Kurds of allowing Saudi agents to operate in northern Iraq where they provide cash and weapons to PJAK (Kurds fighting for independence of Iranian Kurds from Iran) hiding out in northern Iraq.

The General Is A Guest

Iraqi officials, prodded by pro-Iran Shia politicians and clerics, admit that an Iranian general (Qassem Suleimani) and his staff are operating in Iraq with the knowledge and consent of the government. That Suleimani is in Iraq is old news. In fact it was a year ago that the presence of Suleimani was acknowledged in the media when major general Qassem Suleimani was identified as the Iranian architect and commander of the Iraqi counterattack against ISIL in Iraq. In November 2015 this was described in detail by an article on a Hezbollah website. Suleimani was described as arriving in Iraq on June 10th 2014 and then bringing in thousands of Iranian and Lebanese (Hezbollah) advisers, experts and combat commanders to organize an effective response to the ISIL offensive. He has done this by weeding out the most incompetent Iraqi officers, training some replacements and quickly creating reliable Iraqi army units. In addition he organized, armed and trained effective Shia volunteer militias. Suleimani then decided where these new forces should fight and in loose cooperation with the Kurds and (since August 2014) foreign (largely U.S.) air power stopped the ISIL advance and is now pushing the Sunni Islamic out of Iraq. Suleimani belongs to IRGC (Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps) and commands the Quds Force (similar to the U.S. Special Forces, but which specializes in supporting Islamic terrorists not fighting them). It was Quds that helped form Hezbollah in the 1980s and built that Shia militia into a major force within Lebanon. Iraqis now fear Quds will try and do the same thing in Iraq and even many Iraqi Shia don’t want that. At the moment Iraq needs all the help it can get and Quds officers and trainers have been very useful. But Quds comes in with an agenda, and an implied promise of freedom for Quds to do its own thing, which includes making Iraq a vassal state of Iran. This is not easy to do and despite a quarter century of Hezbollah in Lebanon, Iran still has limited influence there.

November 19, 2016: In the north (40 kilometers south of Mosul) security forces rounded up the last of the fifty or so ISIL fighters that had managed to travel from Mosul or Syria without being detected and seized part of a town near the Qayyarah Air Base. The local governor (of Nineveh Province, which Mosul is also in) soon fired three senior officials for failure to prevent ISIL movements like this. Iraqi forces took the nearby Qayyarah Air Base from ISIL i n early July and within two weeks American logistics and maintenance and engineering personnel were assisting the Iraqis in restoring Qayyarah so it could serve as the main support facility for the 25,000 or so Iraqi troops, police and militia who would carry out the assault on Mosul from the south. While many facilities at Qayyarah Air Base had been destroyed and most equipment removed or inoperable the air strip, long enough to handle heavy transports, was intact as were many of the buildings on the base. By August the base was back in operation and supposedly well-protected from ISIL attack.

November 9, 2016: The U.S. revealed that its intelligence showed that American airstrikes against ISIL had, since mid-2014, also killed 119 civilians. Other estimates go as high as 1,800 deaths but the U.S. says its data is more accurate and through.

November 8, 2016: In the north (west of Mosul) an American UAV used missiles to kill Mahmoud Shukri al Nuaimi, the ISIL chief intel officer.

November 7, 2016: In the north (west of Mosul) an American UAVs used missiles to kill the ISIL chief propaganda officer Shehata al Masry, and ISIL treasurer Fares Abu Bakr. North of Baghdad another UAV missile attack killed Abu Mariam, the ISIL military commander for Iraq.

November 1, 2016: In the West (Anbar) an American airstrike killed ISIL explosives expert Nazim al Jaghifi and three of his subordinates. Two days later ISIL confirmed the deaths.

In October the 1,792 Iraqi deaths from terrorist (mainly ISIL inspired) violence were up 79 percent over the 1,003 lost in September. That in turn was up more than 45 percent over August. 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. Up until August (when 691 died) losses were relatively low. In July to 759 died, in June 662 and May had 867 dead. Before that April had 741 dead, March 1,119, February 670 and January 849. Civilians accounted for half or more of the dead because ISIL has been 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. Total deaths for this year are expected to be about 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 is now growing in both Iraq and Syria because ISIL is under heavy attack. 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.

 

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