Peshmerga soldiers conduct tactical movements during a live-fire exercise last March near Erbil, Iraq. (US Army/Jessica Hurst)
by Chad Garland
NAWARAN, Iraq — A sniper lurks among desolated buildings of an abandoned village just over the hillside where Kurdish soldiers are dug in behind a berm, but Serbest Tivanisi, the Kurdish sector commander, doesn’t flinch as he peers over the sandbags.
Beyond the village, on the horizon roughly 15 miles to the south, is the dark smudge of Mosul and thousands more militants.
Tivanisi wouldn’t say what role his fighters would play in the campaign to retake Iraq’s second-largest city, held by militants since 2014, but they will likely be asked to occupy at least part of the territory ahead of them as the anti-Islamic State coalition closes in on the militants’ last urban stronghold in Iraq.
After many months of delays and false starts, it finally appears that the campaign for Mosul is entering the final stage.
Earlier this month, Kurdish forces, known as peshmerga, launched an offensive to retake several villages east of the city. The capture of the air base at Qayyara, 40 miles south of Mosul, gives the Iraqis and their U.S. and international partners a strategic staging area for an assault against the city.
Kurdish officials have said they plan to advance to within about 10 miles of Mosul without entering it. That, they say, they’ll leave to the Iraqi army; the peshmerga will play a supporting role.
Front-line peshmerga fighters expect a bloody, protracted and complicated fight ahead, notwithstanding a coalition assessment that enemy resistance is beginning to crumble.
Yet Lt. Gen. Sean MacFarland, who recently gave up command of the U.S.-led anti-Islamic State coalition, was upbeat in recent remarks.
Islamic State fighters are becoming “even easier targets,” he told reporters. The coalition has killed roughly 45,000 militants, and those remaining, an estimated 15,000 to 30,000, fight less effectively than in the past.
“When we go someplace, it’s easier to go there now than it was a year ago, and the enemy doesn’t put up as much of a fight,” MacFarland said.
The assessment on the ground in Kurdistan is a bit grimmer.
“Meter by meter, we shed our blood to push Daesh back,” said Sirwan Barzani, who commands a peshmerga unit east of Mosul called the Black Tigers. Daesh is an Arabic acronym for the Islamic State group, which is also known as ISIS or ISIL.
In the advance on Mosul, front-line fighters expect fierce resistance from snipers, an “unprecedented” number explosive booby traps and desperate fighters making their “last stand,” said a Western volunteer with the peshmerga, who declined to be named to protect his family in Europe. Militants are likely to fight rather than retreat or surrender. That would subject them to the wrath of the Islamic State or its enemies, such as Shiite militias said to be nearly as brutal.
“The fight for Mosul will be unlike anything else we’ve seen in Iraq so far, because of the importance of the city and the fact that ISIS won’t have anywhere to run to this time,” the Western volunteer said. “It will be bloody.”
It’s unclear when the fighting will begin in earnest or how long it will take. The Iraqi army south of Mosul, which is expected to lead the offensive, is working with U.S. soldiers to build up a logistics hub south of the city at Qayyarah West Airbase, said MacFarland, who declined to give a timeline for the operation. The Iraqi troops are clearing “the neighborhood” around the base, he said.
In the meantime, the coalition has been building up the peshmerga’s capabilities in preparation for the fight. The United States and its allies began providing the Kurds this spring with about two U.S. Army brigades worth of equipment, such as armored personnel carriers, mortars and anti-tank weaponry.
As of July, two battalions from each of the two peshmerga brigades receiving the new hardware had completed an eight-week course to train them in using it. The third and fourth battalions of each brigade are slated to be trained up by the end of the year.
Also last month, the Defense Department signed an agreement to supply the Kurdish forces with $415 million to pay stipends to fighters and to buy food, fuel, ammunition and other supplies.
Peshmerga commanders said they desperately needed the added support to take on the enemy in Mosul.
“We need everything,” Barzani said. “Money, ammunition, heavy machine guns.”
Soldiers have been going three or four months at a time without pay, and while the peshmerga front lines are shelled daily by Islamic State mortars or rockets, the Kurds often don’t have the ammunition to respond in kind, Barzani said.
He estimated he has “max, 25 percent of my needs” to push the Islamic State out of towns and villages surrounding its urban stronghold on the other side of the Great Zab River.
Tivanisi estimated his sector’s weapons strength at 5 percent of his enemy’s. Over tea with guests in the bunker that serves as his living quarters, he complained that an 83 mm shoulder-fired SMAW rocket, which he said is only good at 200 meters, is his heaviest weapon.
Arming the Kurds is a delicate operation. U.S. Marine Corps Maj. Adrian J.T. Rankine-Galloway, a Pentagon spokesman, said the planned new funding had the “full approval and support from the government of Iraq,” but news of the agreement’s signing sparked opposition in Iraq’s federal government. Some members of parliament called on Baghdad to oppose it, local media reported.
Tensions between Baghdad and Irbil are not new, and the fall of Mosul will likely intensify internal power struggles. The peshmerga have long complained of being outgunned by the Islamic State. They blame the situation on the Iraqi army’s abandonment of equipment after its retreat from Mosul two years ago, and on the federal government’s withholding of coalition-supplied gear.
Leaders of the Kurdish forces, considered among the most effective in the fight against the Islamic State in Iraq, also fault Iraqi cowardice for the Islamic State’s advance.
Barzani remains skeptical that the army will fulfill its role in retaking Mosul. He says he plans to keep them between his own troops and the Islamic State fighters in case they decide to drop their weapons and retreat. “It’s happened before,” he said.
For its part, Baghdad is concerned about arming the Kurds, who are not shy about their desire for full independence. So far in the fight against the Islamic State, the Kurds have expanded their territory by 50 percent as they’ve pushed the militants back, and officials have said they plan to keep what they’ve paid for with blood. Baghdad opposes those plans.
Many observers believe the liberation of Mosul and surroundings — populated by a mix of Sunni Muslims, Assyrian Christians, Yazidis, Kurds, Turkmen and Shabak — will only exacerbate ethnic and religious tensions. The conflict has added new grievances to long-standing resentments over the distribution of power, territory and oil.
For example, Christians and Yazidis forced from their lands in northern Nineveh province view Sunni Muslims who stayed behind as Islamic State collaborators.
The Sunnis will consider Iraq’s largely Shiite army and the Kurdish peshmerga as invaders, said Michael Pregent, a Middle East analyst and adjunct fellow at the D.C.-based Hudson Institute.
Rights groups have warned that Shiite militias have brutalized Sunnis in other liberated cities and may do so in Mosul. The Shiite fighters have also clashed with the Kurds.
Unless underlying issues, such as Sunni disenfranchisement, are addressed, this won’t be the last bloody campaign for Mosul, experts say.
“No matter how much combat power you bring to bear, it’s just going to be mowing the grass until you address the Sunni problem,” said Scott Mann, a retired Special Forces officer with experience in Iraq and Afghanistan. Without a shift in strategy, “it’s just stir and repeat,” said Mann, who is the founder of the Stability Institute, which advises professionals on stabilizing at-risk regions.
Barzani, who said the solution to Iraq’s troubles is to divide the country in three, expects to be fighting the Islamic State again soon after Mosul falls, only under a different name.
“We’ll be starting maybe in a year.”