Iraq: The Bloody Battle For Mosul

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December 13, 2016: After eight weeks the battle for Mosul has driven ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) forces from most of the city east of the Tigris River. It is slow going because, as was already known (from refugees and deserters) ISIL had planted thousands of mines and booby-traps and dug many kilometers of tunnels that allowed ISIL fighters to shift forces and supplies without risking an air or ground attack. All this was taken into taken into account before the operation to take Mosul began on October 17 th . What was unknown was how well the largely untested attack force would perform under this sort of relentless urban warfare. As far back as World War II it was known that taking a defended city usually meant it would take longer than expected and even if the attackers were superior in numbers and training they would lose as many men as the defenders. In Mosul the attack force is losing a bit more than the defenders, in part because many of the attackers are Shia militia, who are more fanatic than disciplined and effective. The Iraqi special operations troops and most of the Kurds are more experienced and the other Iraqi army troops are somewhere in between. The situation is further complicated by the nature of the enemy, which is largely a force of men prepared to die fighting and have no problems using civilians as human shields and employing tactic to kill or delay the advance.

ISIL had over two years to prepare their defenses and even though the attackers have maps showing many of these defenses and mined areas they don’t know where all of this stuff is and it’s what you don’t know that will get you killed. While ISIL has lost over a third of their defending force in two months of combat the attackers (about 20,000 on or near the front line and four times as many in support) suffered about over ten percent losses (dead, missing, disabled and deserters) so far. The attackers keep their casualties down by using artillery and airstrikes as much as possible and advancing carefully. That slows things down and requires a lot of ammunition and expensive aerial operations. Meanwhile there are apparently some 3,000 ISIL men still in the city.

While Iraqis are doing nearly all the fighting they have over 10,000 foreign troops and contractors providing specialist support. The American and NATO help is appreciated because of the superior intelligence collecting (UAVs, satellites and other airborne sensors) and electronic warfare capability. ISIL depends on a lot of commercial wireless communications devices (cell phones, walkie-talkies, CB and such) and these can be jammed with equipment and tactics the Americans developed in Iraq between 2004 and 2008. This has made it possible to locate ISIL workshops for building car bombs and suicide bomb vests. These get hit by an airstrike, often by the Iraqi Air Force, as soon as they are located. Meanwhile many ISIL tactics, like mass suicide car bomb attacks (often with up to dozen vehicles) depends on wireless communications to work. Being able to monitor these conversations or jam them is a capability the attackers wish they had more of. One of the new ISIL tactics is to use commercial UAVs to can direct suicide car bombers around obstacles and enemy fire in order to make their attack. Iraqi forces soon learned to shoot these small UAVs (often quadcopters) down as soon as they see them. Many of these ISIL UAVs have been captured when ISIL positions are overrun. Apparently ISIL has a large number of them in Mosul.

The aerial surveillance and electronic monitoring shows that ISIL is still preparing to put up a formidable defense in the older parts of the city west of the Tigris River. East of the river there are more parks and more recent (and less dense) construction. Most of east Mosul has been taken although ISIL likes to use prepared and well hidden (often tunnels) routes to move snipers and suicide bombers back into “liberated” areas to cause problems.

Then there is the problem with civilians in the combat zone. There are a lot more than expected, or desired. Even when the enemy is not deliberately using civilians as human shields their presence often interferes with or just slows down the advance. The attackers have not allowed civilians in liberated parts of the city to move around because ISIL has planned to move with civilians and make attacks on the more vulnerable support units. So liberated neighborhoods of Mosul are put under guard and that takes a lot of manpower, as does the need to provide security for aid convoys and aid personnel. After screening civilians who want to leave the city can do so and about 100,000 have left so far with over 60 percent of them heading north to the safer Kurdish controlled areas. But most of the Mosul civilians are content to stay where they are once ISIL is driven out and essential supplies (especially food and medicine) are available again.

The Iraqi government is disappointed in that Mosul won’t be taken by the end of the year. It may be several more months before ISIL is cleared out of the city and its suburbs. At this point there appears to be at least ISIL fighters left in the city and suburbs and no indication that a lot of them are about to flee.

Overall ISIL Losses

U.S. intelligence believes ISIL has lost at least 50,000 personnel since mid-2014. 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. Compiling all the captured data gives the most accurate estimates of enemy losses. This means that since 2013 (when ISIL first appeared) the group has lost over 60,000 personnel to combat, disease, accidents and desertion. Most of the losses have been suffered in Syria, Iraq and Libya. It’s believed that ISIL currently has only about 15,000 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 and ISIL recently lost its only major Libyan base (the coastal city of Sirte). Defending the city cost them the loss of some 3,000 personnel (dead, captured and deserters).

The U.S. believes that this is, at least in Iraq, history repeating itself. After all ISIL began as a disobedient branch of al Qaeda back in 2004. Americans who served during the 2004-8 campaign to destroy ISILs predecessor the ISI (Islamic State of Iraq) and know what is going on here. ISI was one of many Sunni Islamic terrorist groups operating in Iraq back then. By 2010 ISI was nearly destroyed due to U.S. efforts, especially getting many Sunni tribes to turn against the Islamic terrorist groups. ISIL is led by many ISI veterans and they are making a lot of the same mistakes that doomed them a decade ago. One failing is the desire to keep lots of records. Many ISI and ISIL leaders were Saddam era bureaucrats and they knew that careful and extensive record keeping made it easier to run a large organization. This helped the remnants of ISI to survive until U.S. forces left in 2011. As expected the Iraqi government failed to follow U.S. advice to take good care of the Sunni tribes, if only to keep the tribes from again supporting the Islamic terrorist groups. Instead the Shia led government turned against the Sunni population and stopped providing government jobs and regular pay for many of the Sunni tribal militias. Naturally many Sunni Arabs went back to supporting terror groups, especially very violent ones like ISI. After 2011, as the Iraqi Shia were turning on the Sunni Arab minority, there was a rebellion against a minority Shia government in Syria, led by the Sunni Arab majority there. The Sunni tribes of western Iraq were linked by culture and sometimes family links with the Sunni tribes of eastern Syria. The rebellion in Syria got ISI thinking about forming a new Islamic Sunni state out of eastern Syria, western Iraq, Baghdad (historically the seat of Sunni power in the area, despite it now being half Shia) and Mosul. Actually this plan also included Lebanon (the Levant”) and all of Iraq, but this was kept quiet initially. This decision had ISI spending a lot more time and effort recruiting in western Iraq after 2011.

ISIL was created in 2013 when ISI sought to become the dominant rebel group in Syria by persuading men, especially foreigners, from other Islamic terrorist groups fighting in Syria to join a new, united Islamic terrorist group called ISIL. This caused problems because of the harsh way ISIL treated civilians and anyone who opposed them. ISIL relished the publicity their atrocities received. But al Qaeda knew from bitter experience (especially in Iraq from 2006-2008) that the atrocities simply turned the Islamic world against you. The bad relations between ISIL and all the other Islamic radicals in Syria reached a low point in June 2013 when the head of al Qaeda (bin Laden successor Ayman al Zawahiri) declared the recent merger of the new (since January 2013) Syrian Jabhat al Nusra (JN) with ISIL unacceptable and ordered the two groups to remain separate. That was because the merger was announced by ISI/ISIL without the prior agreement of JN leadership. Many JN members then left their JN faction to join ISIL. JN leaders saw this as a power grab by ISI/ISIL and most of the JN men who left to join ISIL were non-Syrians. Many of these men had worked with ISI before and thought they were joining a more powerful group. A month later al Qaeda declared ISIL outcasts and sanctioned the war against them. By January 2014 this had turned into all-out war between ISIL and the other rebel groups in Syria. That war continues and now al Qaeda is calling on ISIL members to come join the more mature Islamic terrorist group that al Qaeda is seen as.

Currently al Qaeda has branches in Afghanistan/Pakistan, Yemen and Africa that, collectively, are in much better shape than ISIL. What happened in 2011 was not the first time al Qaeda has had to slap down misbehaving Iraqi Islamic terror groups and won’t be the last. But it’s not a problem unique to Iraq. It is a problem for Saudi Arabia because the Saudis financed al Nusra and some of the other Islamic terrorist rebels in Syria that went to war with ISIL. To the Saudis such support is the lesser of two evils as ISIL was crippling rebel efforts to overthrow the Assad government. This is also part of the ideological war the Saudis (and most other Sunni Moslems) are fighting with Shia Iran (and its Shia allies the Assads and the Hezbollah militia in Lebanon). Meanwhile the Saudis continue crushing the Sunni Islamic terrorists that try to attack them at home. This includes local members of ISIL. All this sounds somewhat bizarre, with Saudi Arabia funding missionaries that create Islamic terrorists who become uncontrollable and seek to overthrow the rulers of Saudi Arabia. Absurd it may be, but it is a familiar pattern in this part of the world where religion and politics have long been intertwined in absurd and tragic ways. Al Qaeda sought to take advantage of this Saudi weakness by rebuilding al Nusra in Syria to the point that the Assad government is overthrown. At that point al Nusra can turn on its Saudi patron and declare a new caliphate. This sounds odd to outsiders, especially non-Moslems. But to those familiar with the Middle East, it is the way things are done, and have been done for a long time.

December 12, 2016: Iraqi forces outside Mosul generally halted operations in a planned “tactical halt”. This was needed to redeploy forces, resupply front line troops and give the troops a few days rest from the relentless combat they have endured for the last eight weeks.

Over the weekend Turkish F-16s bombed at least a dozen PKK (Turkish Kurdish separatist rebels) bases in northern (Kurdish) Iraq. The Turks are retaliating for a Kurdish terror bombing in Turkey on the 10th that killed 44 people. This was a twin bombing outside an Istanbul sports stadium. A PKK affiliate took credit for the attack and police have arrested 13 suspects so far. This is a continuation of the conflict between Turkey and the PKK based in northern Iraq and southeastern Turkey. This latest outbreak began in July 2015. Since mid-2015 this fighting has left over 8,000 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.

December 9, 2016: In central Syria (near Palmya) coalition aircraft hit the largest ISIL convoy ever encountered and destroyed over 160 oil transports (trucks and tractor trailers.) The last sources of salable oil for ISIL are in Syria and this air strike cost ISIL over $2 million. That was money ISIL needs to pay the higher smuggling fees to get oil and other valuable exports out and essential supplies (like ammo and weapons) and people in. To support the effort to drive ISIL out of Mosul the U.S. led air coalition is increasing its efforts against ISIL military and economic targets in Syria, where most ISIL forces are. Keeping reinforcements from getting to Mosul will make the city easier to take.

December 7, 2016: Parliament approved the $87 billion 2017 budget without participation by the Kurds. The Kurds are supposed to get 17 percent of the budget but are getting less because the government wants to halt Kurdish oil exports (via Turkey) from Kurdish territory in the north.

In the north, near the Syrian border Iraqi warplanes bombed ISIL targets in the town of al Qaim. The air force reported about fifty ISIL fighters and some civilians used as human shields were killed. Then ISIL released a video of that said was the aftermath of the attack and claimed at least 120 civilians were killed. There was no way to confirm ISIL claims but Sunni politicians in parliament demanded an investigation and encouraged foreign media to cover the story. This is pretty much a standard ISIL media manipulation operation.

December 4, 2016: The Iraqi economy continues to survive and thrive because of oil exports despite ISIL efforts to interfere with that. In November a record 4.051 million barrels of oil a day were exported. Some oil is refined for local use but most is exported. The peak for overall production was hit in January 2016, when 4.7 million barrels a day were produced. Subsequent ISIL efforts to reduce that were defeated or repaired and overall production stayed about the same while exports slowly moved up. Under Saddam Iraqi oil production was stuck at 2.5 million barrels a day after Saddam went to war with Iran in 1980. War damage and sundry other mistakes prevented returning to pre-1980 levels. Production previously peaked in the late 1970s at four million barrels a day. Iraqi oil facilities never recovered until after Saddam was ousted in 2003. Iraqi has nine percent of the world's oil reserves, but decades of war and mismanagement had prevented necessary maintenance and construction in the oil fields. Since 2008 the oil regions have been safe enough for foreign oil production companies to bring in their experts, and cash, in to get the job done, so Iraqi production has been steadily increasing. The goal is ten million barrels a day by the end of the decade. The Kurds began exporting (80,000 barrels a day) in 2014, largely with the help of Turkish investors. That has since risen to over 500,000 barrels a day (worth $350 million a month to the Kurdish government up there). In the south the Iraqi government is producing the rest. The oil prices falling by more than 50 percent since 2013 have hurt, but that is expected to change eventually. Meanwhile most (a little over half) of Iraqis believe that the low oil prices, ISIL and all the corruption are the fault of the United States, which wants to keep Iraq weak. Until Iraqis realize that the problem is closer to home Iraq will remain weak.

December 3, 2016: As expected, terrorism related deaths rose in November, especially for the security forces. Overall losses were 2,885 dead which was 61 percent more than October. Most of the 1,959 November deaths among soldiers, police and militia were from the fighting in and around Mosul. These losses were more than triple security forces deaths in October, when there 1,792 Iraqi deaths (civilian and security forces) from terrorist (mainly ISIL inspired) violence. The government underestimated the public outcry over the losses among military personnel involved in the Mosul campaign. The UN, which has long compiled government and other sources of casualty data, now says those numbers were “unverified” and no more would be released until later. The October deaths 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 10-20 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.

November 30, 2016: East of Mosul Iraqi troops killed Abu Izzam, the ISIL leader in charge of producing and selling oil to raise money as well as refining captured oil into fuels ISIL forces could use. Most ISIL oil operations in Iraq have been shut down and Abu Izzam was trying to get any movable oil related equipment moved to Syria or smuggled out of the country for much needed cash.

November 26, 2016: Parliament finally passed (after much Iranian pressure) a law making the Shia militias a part of the armed forces. Now the militia leaders are demanding a share of the military budget and enough money (nearly half a billion dollars to start with) to build their own bases. There are about 100,000 of these Shia militia and they are a contentious issue in Iraq. For one thing these militias are often out of control and several massacres of Sunni civilians have been linked to them. And then there’s the Iran connection.

In Syria an American airstrike killed Boubaker el Hakim, one of the most wanted (especially in Europe) ISIL leaders. Hakim was in charge of ISIL terror operations outside the Middle East and is known to have been the chief organizer of recent attacks in Tunisia, Algeria and France. It was the January 2015 Paris attack (traced back to Hakim) that brought France and other European nations into the fight against ISIL as major participants.

November 25, 2016: In Syria, outside al Bab (northeast of Aleppo) ISIL forces inside the city fired a mortar shell at FSA rebels and 22 of the rebels came down with symptoms of mustard gas exposure. The Turk-backed rebels were moved to a Turkish military hospital for treatment. Russia recently revealed that its chemical warfare experts collected mustard gas samples from a dud shell fired in September by ISIL forces in Aleppo. The Russians also found evidence of ISIL shells filled with chlorine. ISIL is believed to have used chlorine and mustard gas bombs and shells at least 52 times in Iraq and Syria since 2014.

November 24, 2016: In Baghdad an ISIL suicide truck bomber attacked a religious event in a Shia neighborhood, killing over 80 and wounding nearly 200.

 

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