US rhetoric collides with Iraqi reality in fight against Islamic State
By JOHN WALCOTT, ZAID SABAH AND DAVID LERMAN | Bloomberg News | Published: February 20, 2015
WASHINGTON — An Iraqi military officer said Friday his nation's troops will need six months to get ready to retake the city of Mosul from Islamic State, undercutting a U.S. statement that the assault would begin as early as April.
The gap between American rhetoric and Iraqi reality has raised questions about why U.S. officials are taking the unusual step of telegraphing publicly to the enemy details of a planned military operation that is months away.
On Thursday, an official from the U.S. Central Command said the United States and Iraq are planning an April or May offensive that will require five Iraqi brigades with 20,000 to 25,000 troops to defeat 1,000 to 2,000 Islamic State fighters in the country's second-largest city.
On Friday, an officer in the Iraqi defense ministry said in a telephone interview that it will take at least until August to arm and train Iraqi forces and resolve their differences with local allies — Kurdish fighters and Shiite paramilitary forces — that the officer said are stronger and more capable than the Iraqi army.
The officer, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss Iraqi forces, said the country's leaders are still having difficulty convincing soldiers to fight the extremists. The Islamic radicals, also known as ISIS, swept across northern Iraq last year to create their self-styled caliphate, or religious state, and seized control of Mosul last June.
The most important issue, the officer said, is resolving what he called trust issues between the Iraqi military and Kurdish peshmerga forces. Sunni Arabs suspect the Kurds want to recapture Mosul so they can incorporate it in the independent state they've long sought to carve out from parts of Iraq, Iran, Turkey and Syria.
The battle for Mosul would be the first major test for Iraqi forces since many fled as Islamic State advanced last year. Some U.S. defense and intelligence officials are skeptical that a large enough Iraqi force can be ready and equipped for such a challenging mission in the next few months.
The American official acknowledged at a briefing Thursday that the main attack force of five Iraqi army brigades will first need to be trained by U.S. advisers. The official said the U.S. hasn't ruled out delaying the offensive from a planned start in April or May if more time is required for training, most of which has yet to begin. He discussed the planned operation on the condition of anonymity.
Iraq has identified the units needed for a Mosul offensive, said the official from Central Command, which oversees U.S. military operations in the Middle East. The force will include five Iraqi army brigades, three smaller brigades serving as a reserve force, three brigades from the Kurdish peshmerga military, a local force of police and tribal fighters, and some counterterrorism forces, the official said.
Providing such specific information about a forthcoming military operation is unusual. When the official was asked why he was disclosing troop details, he said his briefing was intended to describe the commitment of Iraqi forces to the battle against the extremists.
That has raised questions among other U.S. officials about the purpose of a briefing that violates the traditional military rules about operational security. Those rules are intended to keep an enemy in the dark about the timing, scope and target of forthcoming missions.
Speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss the unusual briefing, four U.S. officials familiar with the planning to retake Mosul speculated that the disclosures may have been intended in part to capitalize on recent gains by Kurdish forces and help foster the impression that Islamic State has lost the initiative and is now on the defensive.
Two of the officials said another motive was to assure the Iraqis that the Obama administration will support an effort to recapture Mosul and prod Iraqi leaders to speed up their efforts to prepare their forces and share power more broadly with Sunni tribal leaders, especially around Mosul.
So far, said one official, the administration has been disappointed that the Iraqi government of Shiite Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi hasn't moved more aggressively to share power with the country's minority Sunnis. That, this official said, has impaired U.S. efforts to recruit, train and equip more Sunni tribal militias to battle Islamic State.
White House press secretary Josh Earnest said Friday that "the principal reason why we saw some weakness in the Iraqi security forces last year is that there was not a central government that had succeeded in unifying that country."
Now, Earnest said on MSNBC, "there is a new central government in place" and "we are confident that, backed by American military airpower, they will be more effective on the battlefield."
An American intelligence official said the briefing, which officials knew would be widely reported in Iraq and reach Islamic State-controlled Mosul via social media, also was an effort to reassure people in the city that relief is coming.
In a telephone interview, Rayan Salahudin, a resident of Mosul, said Friday that 95 percent of the population would welcome liberation by ground troops. He said life has become a nightmare even for those who initially supported Islamic State.
The American intelligence official said news of an impending military action might encourage some residents to continue to resist the extremists' harsh brand of Islamic rule — and perhaps prompt a few to provide information on militant positions, equipment, weapons caches and defenses.
Salahudin said Islamic State fighters in Mosul have stopped using military vehicles and switched to civilian cars to avoid being targeted by airstrikes and plan to impose a curfew when fighting on the ground starts. The extremists are preventing anyone from leaving the city, which he said has become "a huge prison."
House-to-house fighting may be required to oust Islamic State fighters from Mosul, reducing or negating the advantage that U.S. and allied airstrikes have provided in more open country.
Hisham al-Brefkani, head of the energy committee of the Nineveh provincial council and acting chief of its security committee, said in a telephone interview that Islamic State has dug trenches in the north and northwest of Mosul.
Finally, said two of the four U.S. officials, there are hopes that publicly discussing the coming offensive might frighten a few marginal Islamic State recruits in Mosul to desert, although they called that a longshot.