Iraq: The Choice Is Slow Or No


January 11, 2017: After twelve 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. While the government long spoke of Mosul being taken by the end of 2016, the reality is that since mid-December the offensive has slowed down considerably. The government does not want to go into details but they have not released data on military casualties for December. That is always a bad sign. The attackers are making progress in taking the eastern (east of the Tigris River) part of the city and the suburban areas (and thus all the roads into the city) all around Mosul. But clearing the east bank of the Tigris and getting across the river into the heart of Mosul must be done slowly. There are several reasons for this. The main one is the need to minimize casualties to civilians (the government will talk about that) and to the small number of Iraqi troops qualified to do this kind of fighting. It’s that last item the government does not want to discuss, because most of the military casualties have been among the best troops and these cannot be replaced quickly. It takes months to train effective combat troops and Iraq does not have a lot of volunteers. Conscription won’t work for the kind of troops you need. This is not a new problem for Iraq but it has been one that cannot be fixed quickly, as Iraqis have been discovering since the Sunni Arab dictatorship was replaced with a democracy in 2003. While the government won’t release the data on December military losses, they have admitted that it will take another three months (or longer) to take Mosul. Most Iraqis accept this because it is understood this approach also keeps civilian casualties down and keeps the Iran backed Shia militias out of the fighting. That prevents more atrocities against non-Shia civilians in general and Iraqi Sunnis in particular. More importantly it shows Iran that Iraq can take care of this without a lot of Iranian help.

While over half of Iraqis are Shia they do not want the country dominated by Shia (but non-Arab) Iran. As a result many of the Iran backed Shia militias have proved reliable (in their treatment of non-Shia civilians) when assigned to police and protect areas ISIL had recently been driven from. Sunni civilians are often warned by ISIL that Shia militias will kill them, rape the women and generally misbehave. But most of the Shia militiamen bring with them needed food and medical aid and generally behave well. Yet the government knows there are violently pro-Iran Shia Iraqis in some of these militias so the risk of bad behavior is always there. Perhaps to avoid that the government announced that some Iraqi Shia militias would be allowed to cross into Syria to aid in the effort to drive ISIL out of eastern Syria.

The Quality Of Quality

From the beginning the Iraqi leadership understood that the use of the best trained troops (Arab special operations forces and veteran Kurd fighters) would greatly reduce casualties among the attackers and help demoralize the ISIL defenders. What was not known until the battle was underway was just what the loss rates would be among the elite troops. It was higher than expected, which is the way this sort of thing usually works out. Although no firm numbers are available the chatter from military hospitals, families of the wounded and American advisors is that at least half the special operations troops have been hurt so far. Most of those were lightly wounded and back in action within days or weeks. But the permanent (dead, disabled and seriously wounded) are gone forever or at least for the rest of the battle. As a practical matter the government has no choice but to go slow. Ordering a speedy advance would not work because the Kurds have made it clear their priority is keeping casualties low. The Kurds are the majority of the effective troops and the Arab special operations forces agree with the Kurds. Technically the government could order the Arab special operations troops, and the smaller number of effective regular army troops to advance without the Kurds. That would risk either mutiny or the destruction of the most effective Arab troops Iraq has.

When the operation began in October there were about 100,000 troops involved but most of them are attacking lightly held areas on the outskirts or providing security in cleared areas and manning the blockade around the city. The hardest fighting is handled by less than ten percent of the troops and overall only about a quarter of the assault force can be relied on in combat. Even with all these precautions civilians are getting killed and so far about 20 percent of the wounded suffered in retaking a neighborhood are civilians. There is also a growing problem with a lack of hospital facilities to handle the hundred or more new casualties coming from the combat zone each day. There are actually a lot more wounded but many can be patched up near the front and do not need extended hospitalization. That’s another unspoken reason for going slow and keeping friendly casualties down. The government knows from past experience that overwhelming available medical facilities and leaving many casualties to die or suffer for long periods is not forgotten by the families involved. Even without democracy, that’s something leaders have to pay attention to eventually.

The Mosul assault force consists of 30,000 Iraqi Army 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 since late 2014. 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). There are over a thousand Iranians providing training, advisory and support assistance to the pro-Iran Shia militias. For political reasons these militias have to be given a lot to do. While most are performing security tasks some are allowed to attack areas on the outskirts of Mosul that contain few non-Shia civilians and few ISIL defenders.

The shortage of competent troops is an old problem and it wasn’t until late 2015 that a newly elected (and more honest and realistic) Iraqi government began removing many incompetent officers (who were there more for political loyalty than their military skills) and dealing with the shortage of capable officers to replace the departed ones. While you can train junior officers in months, commanders of larger units (companies, battalions and brigades) takes years. Thus many of the officers in charge of the offensive are recently promoted, inexperienced and cautious especially since they have orders to keep casualties among their troops as low as possible. This is good for morale but makes it easy for a small number of ISIL defenders to slow down a much larger number of advancing attackers. The Iraqi troops may be slow while attacking but they have also proved steadfast and effective when attacked. The ISIL forces are launching more suicide bomber attacks to keep troops out of the city and these only slow the advance down rather than scare the attackers away. The Iraqi troops have been taught effective tactics to deal with these attacks and tend to defeat them with little or no loss to themselves.

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 account before the operation began on October 17th. 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. 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 any tactic to halt 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 at least half of their defending force in three months of combat 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 still several thousand ISIL men in the city but less than a third of those are still east of the Tigris.

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 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 nearly 200,000 have left so far with over half 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.

So far some 70 percent of Mosul on the east side of the Tigris River has been taken and assault forces report the enemy is less organized but still determined to die fighting. So far in 2017 over 200 ISIL men a week are being killed, most of them defending the 30 percent of eastern Mosul ISIL still controls. West of the Tigris downtown Mosul is under constant aerial surveillance and ISIL movements are severely restricted, even when using human shields. Forcing civilians to be human shields does not always work. The civilians know that not all the air support will ignore targets that have civilians nearby. Thus civilians avoid getting rounded up to be human shields and ISIL has got a lot of spare manpower to deal with all the uncooperative human shields. Moreover there are still some armed civilians in Mosul looking for opportunities to attack, usually as snipers, ISIL men. But the main danger is from above where American, Iraqi and other warplanes, most armed with smart bombs or laser guided missiles, looking for a target day and night, no matter what the weather.

Since the general advance resumed on December 29th troops have expanded the recaptured portions of eastern Mosul by ten percent. More Iraqi units are becoming exert at detecting ISIL ambushes, hidden bombs and other fatal surprises. Iraqi artillery and air controllers are more effective at quickly calling in airstrikes or artillery fire to deal with the obstacles. This is making a difference because the ISIL defenders in general have little training or combat experience. ISIL depends on these rookies dying rather than running away or surrendering and apparently most of them do. So while the Iraqi troops gain more experience the ISIL defenders generally do not.

Combat Support

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.

Anbar Backs The Government

Anbar Province (western Iraq) 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 and have been cooperating with the government. That could be seen today in Ramadi, where local tribal militias joined Iraqi soldiers (most of them Shia) to quickly defeat an ISIL raid on the city. In October 2016 the government proclaimed ISIL defeated in Anbar but that was not entirely true and still isn’t. 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 was apparently what happened. 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 spent months clearing all the landmines and explosive traps ISIL left behind. That was appreciated by the local Sunnis.

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 a few incidents. ISIL survives in Anbar and as long as ISIL controls the Syrian side of the border ISIL will continue to operate in Anbar.

January 10, 2017: ISIL destroyed two of the bridges over the Tigris. The advancing forces did not plan on capturing any of the bridges intact and have brought forward engineer units that can quickly put temporary bridges in place.

January 8, 2017: Some Iraqi troops reached the Tigris River. These were special operations forces apparently seeking an opportunity to seize one of the remaining Tigris bridges intact.

January 7, 2017: In a not unexpected development ISIL forces are damaging or destroying some water distribution systems to deny water to civilians (and troops) in areas they have retreated from. ISIL still controls some key elements of the municipal water supply operation. This does not stop the advance but puts more pressure on the Iraqi support forces who now have to move additional water supplies to the front line and recently taken areas. So far over 170,000 civilians have fled Mosul but many more are staying, seeing that as safer (and the only way to protect their property from looters).

January 6, 2017: Turkey and Iraq have apparently reached an agreement on the withdrawal of the 2,000 Turkish troops in northern Iraq where they have trained thousands of Sunni Arabs and Kurds. The Turks are in a Kurdish base north of Mosul.

January 3, 2017: The government did not release any details on military losses in December. They did report that civilian losses were down from November and for 2016 total civilian deaths were 6,878, which was less than 2015. In early December it was revealed that terrorism related deaths rose in November, especially for the security forces. Overall losses in November 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 2016 it was 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 were 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. The 2016 decline appears likely to be closer to ten percent than 20 percent. Until 2013 when 8,900 died, the Islamic terrorist problem seemed under control. It wasn’t and since 2014 it has been an uphill struggle. 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.

January 2, 2017: American forces in Iraq lost 17 troops in 2016, compared to eight in 2015. Five of those losses occurred in November but none in December.

December 29, 2016: Iraqi forces that had halted to resupply and repair equipment over the last few weeks rejoined the battle as the offensive became more intense, with ISIL daily losses doubling to over 200 dead.

December 24, 2016: The U.S. revealed that it is assigning more advisers and support troops to front line Iraqi units. Another few hundred American special operations troops are also heading for Iraq, where they will work with their Iraqi counterparts to plan and carry out raids and difficult attacks in Mosul.

December 21, 2016: More Iraqi forces outside Mosul halted operations in a planned “tactical halt”. This was needed to make repairs on equipment, redeploy forces, resupply front line troops and give the troops a few days rest from the relentless combat they have endured since October.

December 14, 2016: Some 88 kilometers west of Mosul an Iraqi air strike at Tal Abta hit a meeting of ISIL commanders and killed twenty of them, along with fifty bodyguards and such.


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