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Battle to retake Mosul has started

By HOWARD ALTMAN (TRIBUNE NEWS SERVICE) | Tampa Tribune, Fla. | Published: March 7, 2016

A battle to retake a major urban area is never a simple task. It’s even more complex in a place like Iraq, a country beset by religious, sectarian and tribal strife. And it’s more complex still when the battle will take place in Mosul, a city that was once home to more than 2 million people and since June 2014 has been controlled by the so-called Islamic State.

The Islamic State turned the last city it lost, Ramadi, into a booby-trapped nightmare before slinking away.

Last week, on the lush grounds of Innisbrook Golf Club in Palm Harbor, I had a conversation about the coming attack to retake Mosul with the man who is leading it.

Attired not in a uniform but a gray suit, Staff Gen. Taleb Shegati Alkenani, commander of Iraq’s Counter Terrorism Service, addressed the sensitivities of taking any kind of military action in a country so deeply divided.

It will be an Iraqi-led effort, with no U.S. troops on the ground. Kurdish Peshmerga forces will help, but won’t be entering Mosul. Neither will Shia militia.

Three days after I spoke to Alkenani, Defense Secretary Ash Carter and Marine Gen. Joe Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters that the battle for Mosul was already underway, in the form of “shaping operations” that included cyberattacks. But more on that in a bit.

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Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi “announced that during 2016, we are going to liberate Mosul city,” Alkenani said through a translator at the conclusion of last week’s Global SOF Foundation Symposium.

The plans have been drawn up, he said, and the units that will take part in the mission are getting ready.

“We are just looking for coordination and cooperation among Iraqi forces and also to cooperate and coordinate with our friends, the Americans, to use their air forces,” Alkenani said.

Aside from airpower, Alkenani said, his troops need U.S. support for training, intelligence information and equipment.

But no troops.

“We do not need fighters from the United States or any coalition,” he said. “They don’t need people on the ground, just advisors training.”

They especially need training on how to call in airstrikes, a task performed by troops called joint terminal attack controllers, or JTACs.

“They need the JTACs to be communications between Iraqi forces and the pilots,” he said.

Being on the ground, watching a target, figuring out the grid coordinates and communicating with busy pilots to ensure bombs and missiles are dropped on target while reducing collateral damage is no easy feat.

Among other training, U.S. Air Force JTACs have to take a monthlong course in the technical and tactical skills and operational procedures needed to call in helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft for Close Air Support to back Special Operations Forces missions.

Personnel are trained in U.S. fixed-wing and rotary-wing platforms and munitions, lasers and ground-marking equipment, night and urban close air support, and close air planning and control.

That training, which takes place at the austere Yuma Proving Ground, is only available to those with a year of operational experience and permission from a commanding officer.

Alkenani said he is confident the Iraqi troops trained to call in airstrikes will succeed. Even if it means a situation where those troops, called Iraqi Forward Air Controllers, or IFACs, are forward, observe the enemy, call a joint operations center a good distance away, talk to a fellow IFAC, who is sitting with a JTAC, who will communicate with the aircrews to deliver the munitions.

It’s been pretty much the standard operating procedure for Operation Inherent Resolve, where for the most part, U.S. and coalition forces have had their JTACs away from the battlefield, relying on the Iraqis.

Centcom officials say that while no U.S. or coalitions forces have provided JTACs forward, they have provided a small contingency of advisers near Shaddadi, Syria, that assisted with planning and coordinating for the Syrian Democratic Forces. Those advisers ensured that airstrikes were quickly cleared for attack and then hitting the correct targets.

During the operation to retake Sinjar, Peshmerga soldiers worked as forward observers and relayed targeting information to the operations center in Irbil, where it was passed onto coalition JTACs. Those forces identified targets and, using an established system that incorporated intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance platforms and other assets, the coalition was able to use that information to facilitate airstrikes and minimize risk to civilians, coalition officials say.

I asked Alkenani if he was comfortable with this process.

“They are doing good, even if there are some delays,” he said. “But no mistakes.”

The airstrikes have played a key role in any success that the Iraqis have had, Alkenani said. Bombing of the Islamic State, or Daesh, started Aug. 8, 2014. Since then, there have been more than 7,100 airstrikes against targets in Iraq, more than 4,800 by U.S. warplanes.

Alkenani also lauds the support provided by U.S. drones and other aircraft providing intelligence surveillance and reconnaissance as well as satellites, which provide a wealth of geospatial intelligence data.

The Kurds are also key allies in the fight against Daesh, and will be a large role in the liberation of Mosul, Alkenani said.

Alkenani said his troops have opened a formal headquarters for operational command in Makhmour, which is in the Kurdistan region, close to Irbil.

That headquarters, he said, was built to establish cooperation and coordination with the Kurds, Alkenani said.

While the Kurds will help drive Daesh out of the largely Sunni dominated Mosul, they won’t be going into the heart of the city, an issue of great importance for all parties involved because of the sectarian sensitivities, Alkenani said.

“There is coordination, but the only forces that will enter the downtown of the city of Mosul will be Iraqi forces, not Kurdish forces. That is the agreement with the Kurdish people.”

Militias from the Shia Popular Mobilization Forces will have no role in the attack on Mosul, Alkenani said.

After the liberation, Mosul will be secured by Mosul city police, Alkenani said. He offered no specific timeline for the plan.

Alkenani’s outline of the plan to retake Mosul is similar what an official from U.S. Central Command, which oversees U.S. military operations in the region,told me almost a year and a half ago.

The biggest difference, of course, was that initially, the attack was expected in early 2015.

The Mosul attack plan presented to me in November 2014 during an interview at Centcom’s headquarters at MacDill Air Force Base called for Peshmerga forces attacking from the west and Iraqi security forces from the south. That was to be followed by an “inside-out approach,” where Iraqi and Peshmerga troops, tribal forces and local police enter Mosul and establish pockets of control.

“Once the pockets are established and defined, then you go in and begin to clear out systematically those pockets of resistance,” the Centcom official said at the time.

But the fight against Daesh has proved to be more difficult,

Asked about Alkenani’s outline of the battle ahead, Centcom officials declined to get into specifics, other than reiterating that “any operation to liberate Mosul will be Iraqi-led and supported by the Coalition,” Air Force Col. Pat Ryder said in an email to the Tribune.

U.S. officials say the jihadi group has suffered major defeats lately, including the loss of Ramadi in December and of a key town in the corridor between Mosul and the so-called caliphate’s so-called capital of Raqqa in Syria.

“The operations against Mosul have already started,” Secretary Carter said last week during a Pentagon news conference. “We’re isolating Mosul, even as we speak, the same thing with Raqqa. So it is not something that will happen in the deep, deep future.”

Aside from bombing Daesh banks and oilfields, the U.S. is also “using cybertools to disrupt ISIL’s ability to operate and communicate over the virtual battlefield,” Carter said, using an acronym for the jihadi group preferred by the White House.

“People have confused maybe when would Mosul be secure with when will operations start,” Gen. Dunford said. “I would tell you both, both in terms of the cyber capability as the secretary spoke about as well as operations to cut the line of communications and begin to go after some of the targets in and around Mosul, those operations have already started.”

The Pentagon announced no new deaths last week in its ongoing overseas operations.

There have been 2,347 U.S. troop deaths in support of Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan, 21 U.S. troop deaths and one civilian Department of Defense employee death in support of the follow-up Operation Freedom’s Sentinel in Afghanistan, and 11 troop deaths and one civilian death in support of Operation Inherent Resolve, the fight against the so-called Islamic State.

haltman@tampatrib.com

(813) 259-7629

Twitter: @haltman

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