MOSUL, Iraq — U.S. forces have begun pushing into insurgent-controlled neighborhoods, establishing a series of combat outposts and fortifying police checkpoints in an effort to strangle the ability of al-Qaida and militant groups to move freely in what U.S. officials call their last urban stronghold in Iraq.
Soldiers under the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment have already built five outposts and are currently erecting three more, almost doubling the number of smaller bases that were scattered around Mosul when they arrived here in mid-December.
“These were areas of the city where the populace was living in daily terror,” said Maj. Bob Molinari, regimental operations officer. “If you’re not living among the populace, you can’t provide them with anything that will convince them that you’re serious about providing for their security.”
The Iraqi government, meanwhile, has created a single command center that will coordinate all operations involving the national army, police and border guard units in Ninevah province. An Iraqi lieutenant general oversees the headquarters, which was established Jan. 15.
The tighter security measures come nearly a month after Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki promised a “decisive” battle against al-Qaida and other insurgent groups in Mosul.
The Jan. 25 announcement came two days after an insurgent explosives cache blew up in the Zanjili suburb in west Mosul, killing as many as 60 people, and a day after a suicide bomber killed the provincial police chief and two other officers who were inspecting the blast site.
Despite al-Maliki’s announcement, U.S. forces caution the fight will not consist of a single big offensive, but say it will consist of a much longer campaign over time.
“We don’t look at this being a dramatic, Fallujah-type battle,” said Molinari, referring to the 2004 battle that destroyed much of that city in fierce fighting. He added that U.S. forces in Mosul want to minimize the damage to the infrastructure and work on establishing relationships that will build trust with the population.
By pushing out into small neighborhood bases, U.S. forces are replicating a strategy that has proved successful in routing insurgents from Baghdad, Baqouba and other cities.
Many of the outposts are slated to become what the military calls “joint security stations” and will house American and Iraqi forces.
While the “clear, hold and build” strategy has worked elsewhere in Iraq, Mosul poses significant challenges for U.S. forces. The city of nearly 2 million, 255 miles north of Baghdad, has long served as a gateway for foreign fighters who slip over the border from Syria to join up with al-Qaida. Nationalist insurgent groups have always maintained a strong presence here.
And while nearly 60 percent Sunni Arab, Mosul also has significant minorities of Kurds, Assyrian Christians and other minority populations. That makes it virtually impossible for U.S. forces to enlist the armed tribal groups, now called “Sons of Iraq,” that have been key to fighting al-Qaida and other insurgents in Anbar province, Baghdad and other parts of the country.
U.S. forces estimate that anywhere from 400 to 600 hard-core insurgents are active in Mosul, along with another 800 to 1,000 criminals who add to the daily mosaic of violence. Molinari said U.S. forces record anywhere from 20 to 30 “significant acts” of violence a day in the city, ranging from bomb attacks to small-arms fire. Eight U.S. troops have been killed in Mosul since soldiers under 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment moved into the city. In the latest incident, a U.S. soldier died Wednesday during a rocket-propelled grenade attack.
Still, U.S. forces in Mosul are about double what they were before December. Two battalions now operate in the city, compared to only one before 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment took over. About 22,000 Iraqi security personnel, including the 2nd Iraqi Army Division, augment them.
One of those U.S. battalions — the 1st Battalion, 8th Infantry Regiment, 4th Infantry Division — arrived in Mosul in mid-January, and now has security responsibility for much of the eastern half of the city. The battalion is constructing three outposts in its area, in neighborhoods that have seen plenty of insurgent activity.
At Combat Outpost Rock, soldiers with Company A moved in a little over a week ago, in what was once an opulent estate owned by a local businessman who fled to Syria. The outpost is little more than a muddy field surrounded by tall concrete blast walls.
“We’re here in this outpost to project combat power right in the middle of where these guys (insurgents) like to operate,” said company commander Capt. Dave Sandoval.
Enemy contact so far has been light. But dangers still lurk. Five soldiers from Company B were killed last month, about a mile from the site, after their Humvee struck a roadside bomb. Just a few days ago, soldiers discovered a truck bomb packed with an estimated 5,000 pounds of explosives in the neighborhood.
While Sandoval said many residents have been cordial to U.S. troops, they also remain wary.
Just how much fear the insurgents still command over residents was evident during a recent night patrol. Sandoval paid a visit to a home where his troops had camped out for a few days, during the initial construction of the nearby combat outpost.
Sandoval offered to pay for the muddy carpets and other damages his troops had caused, but the owner refused, saying the soldiers had been his guests and that his ethics prevented him from taking the money.
But as Sandoval persisted, the man finally admitted he was afraid insurgents would find out.
“I could really be in trouble if someone knows about this,” the man told Sandoval.
Sandoval told the man he understood and that he would not force the money on him.
“I don’t agree with it, but I respect it,” he said.