Poor morale, fear of Islamic State hamper Iraqi offensive to free Mosul
By SETH ROBSON | STARS AND STRIPES Published: April 7, 2016
MAKHMOUR, Iraq — Coalition airstrikes pounded the Islamic State-held village of Nasra in northern Iraq, softening up enemy positions for the Iraqi army.
The hilltop village, once home to 600 families just west of the Tigris River, is the target of a push by Iraqi forces that has been touted as the start of the operation to recapture Iraq’s second-largest city, Mosul, which has been in the extremists’ hands since June 2014.
Operation Valley Wolf would “help set the conditions for the liberation of Mosul,” Col. Steve Warren, spokesman for the U.S.-led international coalition targeting the Islamic State, said in an April 1 briefing.
But it is unclear how long that will take and some are questioning whether the U.S.-trained Iraqi army is up to the task.
On Wednesday, the commander in charge of the offensive, Maj. Gen. Najm Abdullah al-Jubbouri, said the push was on hold until reinforcements of police and tribal fighters arrived to hold recaptured territory, the Reuters news agency reported.
Three Iraqi army battalions made up of both Shiite and Sunni troops are part of the push toward Nasra, Sirwan Barzani, commander of a peshmerga unit called the Black Tigers, said Tuesday.
The forces have already captured three or four villages, Warren told reporters at the Pentagon Thursday. Iraqi forces, he said, had “advanced, withdrawn, advanced, withdrawn, and now they’re in the process of advancing again.”
Barzani, the billionaire director of Korek Telecom and nephew of Kurdish President Masoud Barzani, said there was little to stop the advance. The troops weren’t pushing forward because they don’t trust their commanders and have been unnerved by Islamic State propaganda, he said.
“Daesh have very strong psychological warfare,” he said, using an Arabic acronym for the Islamic State group.
The Iraqi army in Kurdistan has the best weapons and armored vehicles but its troops have poor morale, Barzani continued. “They are like a big strong vehicle without an engine.”
USA Today reported last week that members of the Iraqi army were deserting and being detained by the peshmerga as the Nasra operation began. Barzani confirmed that his men had been detaining deserters in recent days.
Warren acknowledged at a briefing Thursday that there were desertions but said “every army has deserters.”
“The Iraqi army is no different. We’ve not seen it as a significant problem,” he said.
“This is the first time this unit has seen combat. It turned out to be ... fairly solid contact, not super high intensity war, but a real fight in difficult terrain,” he said. ”There’s always going to be some getting your legs under you, and that’s what we’re seeing now.”
Jubbouri, the commander of the offensive, said the Islamic State militants had dug tunnels under Nasra and rigged vehicles with explosives, Reuters reported.
The Nasra operation could be observed from forward positions on the peshmerga front line, guarding the autonomous Kurdistan region and the approach to its capital, Irbil.
When the jets attack, explosions shake the earth and acrid, black smoke rises over the town. Nasra’s tallest structure, a water tower, still stands but the tank has been shreded.
By now the Iraqi troops were supposed to have captured Nasra, according to the peshmerga, but they don’t appear to have made much progress. The most forward Iraqi army positions that could be observed from the front line on Tuesday were occupied by troops in armored Humvees hunkered down behind an earthen wall, perhaps half a mile from the town.
Peshmerga Capt. Mohammed Asad Khoshawe has been watching the Nasra operation for the past few days but hasn’t sent his troops to help. They’ve been on the line for a year, fending off attacks by the Islamic State, which sends teams across the Tigris in small boats to harass the Kurds, he said. Last month, two peshmerga on this section of the line were killed by a rocket-propelled grenade.
The airstrikes on Nasra have been steady,Khoshawe said.
However, the peshmerga still get incoming fire. One of the young soldiers at the front, Amir Salah, 23, said a bullet whizzed over his head while he was watching the town through binoculars on Monday.
At his headquarters, several miles behind the front line, Barzani, 45, appeared supremely confident in his peshmerga but unimpressed with the Iraqi army battalions.
The Black Tigers hold a 120-kilometer section of the front southeast of Irbil.
“It’s the hottest sector on the frontline,” Barzani said. “Almost half of the attacks are against my sector.” The Black Tigers have used MILAN rockets and rocket-propelled grenades to destroy 16 car bombs in the past year, he said.
The latest fighting is happening just up river from a U.S. Marine Corps outpost — Fire Base Bell — that was set up to protect coalition troops helping train Iraqi forces near the town of Makhmour.
A Marine there was killed by a Katyusha rocket last month and the base came under small-arms attack in the days that followed.
Barzani said the base is still threatened by Katyushas since it’s close to enemy forces near the Tigris and well within the rockets’ 20-kilometer (12-mile) range.
U.S. special operators have been teaching first aid and explosive ordnance disposal and giving tactical training to the peshmerga. In recent days, U.S. forces have moved closer to the front lines, operating unmanned aircraft to gather intelligence, Barzani said.
The Black Tigers are prepared to help retake Mosul but there is confusion over just how that will happen, Barzani said.
Asked at the April 1 briefing about Iraqi assertions that they could retake Mosul by the end of this year or early next year, Warren said while that would be welcome, “we’re trying to stay out of the timeline business, primarily because almost every time we give it, the time line estimate is wrong.”
“We’ve got a saying in the Army,” Warren said. “It says, the enemy gets a vote. So ... it is really tough to predict exactly how a battle is going to unfold.”
The uncertainty about when the battle for Mosul might begin in earnest is affecting the situation near Makhmour. For example, a key bridge that crosses the Tigris near the town remained in place for 18 months because of a plan for Iraqi army troops to drive over it on their way to Mosul. However, on March 7, the bridge was destroyed in an airstrike, signaling that the plan had changed, Barzani said.
“Nobody knows what the plan is to retake Mosul,” Barzani said. “They have changed it five times. The peshmerga are ready but it’s not certain how many will participate and from which sector.”
Stars and Stripes reporter Corey Dickstein contributed to this report.