U.S. aids Iraqi gains in fight to re­take Mo­sul

Bat­tle rules shift for sol­diers in bat­tle for city


SOUTH OF MO­SUL, Iraq — U.S. Army Lt. Col. James Brown­ing jug­gled phone calls on an over­stuffed sofa in a small vil­lage south of Mo­sul. His coun­ter­parts in the Iraqi army’s 9th Di­vi­sion were push­ing to­ward western Mo­sul, just a few miles away and were com­ing un­der mor­tar fire from the Is­lamic State ex­trem­ist group as they moved on a power sta­tion.

Iraqi army Brig. Gen. Walid Khal­ifa called Brown­ing by phone to re­lay the ap­prox­i­mate lo­ca­tion of the mor­tar fire. Brown­ing swapped phones to make an­other call.

“Can you tell them that [the 9th Di­vi­sion] is re­ceiv­ing fire?” he told his coali­tion col­leagues at an­other for­ward base over­see­ing the op­er­a­tion. He asked them to pin­point where the at­tack was com­ing from us­ing coali­tion aerial sur­veil­lance and take it out.

Just a few months ago, Brown­ing’s phone con­ver­sa­tion would have been im­pos­si­ble. Rather than re­quest as­sis­tance di­rectly, his call would have likely been routed through a joint com­mand cen­ter much far­ther from the bat­tle zone.

In the fight against the Is­lamic State in Mo­sul, the United States has ad­justed its rules of en­gage­ment as U.S. and other in­ter­na­tional troops are now closer to front-line fight­ing than be­fore.

Dur­ing the push to take Mo­sul In­ter­na­tional Air­port on Thurs­day, U.S. and Euro­pean ad­vis­ers were em­bed­ded with for­ward Iraqi rapid re­sponse and spe­cial forces units.

Coali­tion of­fi­cials say the changes are help­ing speed up Iraqi mil­i­tary gains, but they mark a steady es­ca­la­tion of U.S. in­volve­ment in Iraq that also re­flects lin­ger­ing short­com­ings on the part of Iraq’s armed forces and grow­ing po­lit­i­cal and mil­i­tary pres­sure to fin­ish the Mo­sul op­er­a­tion quickly.

“Usu­ally I’m right by his side,” Brown­ing said be­tween phone calls with Khal­ifa. “When a threat comes in like this, we take it just as se­ri­ously as if we are un­der threat.”

This closer re­la­tion­ship is new.

In the lead-up to the op­er­a­tion to re­take Mo­sul, U.S. forces steadily in­creased their foot­print in Iraq, in­creas­ing the num­ber of troops in the coun­try and mov­ing out­posts closer to front-line fight­ing. But the num­ber of U.S. forces on or near the front lines re­mained rel­a­tively small.

Two months into the cam­paign to re­take Iraq’s sec­ond-largest city from Is­lamic State con­trol, Iraqi forces ap­peared bogged down by weeks of gru­el­ing ur­ban com­bat. Some front lines went stag­nant for weeks and Iraqi forces were suf­fer­ing rel­a­tively high ca­su­alty rates un­der fierce Is­lamic State coun­ter­at­tacks.

On Dec. 26, U. S. Army Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend is­sued a tac­ti­cal direc­tive send­ing more coali­tion troops away from the safety of their out­posts, deeper into Mo­sul and closer to front lines to work side by side with their Iraqi coun­ter­parts. In Jan­uary, the Pen­tagon first con­firmed that U.S. forces were at times oper­at­ing in­side the city of Mo­sul.

As Iraqi spe­cial forces and rapid re­sponse units stormed Mo­sul’s air­port and the sprawl­ing Gha­zlani base on the south­ern edge of the city’s west, coali­tion forces were em­bed­ded with for­ward units ad­vis­ing them on their plan of at­tack, ac­cord­ing to two Iraqi of­fi­cers over­see­ing the op­er­a­tion. The of­fi­cials spoke on con­di­tion of anonymity as they were not au­tho­rized to talk to re­porters.

In­side east­ern Mo­sul, in the weeks lead­ing up to that half of the city be­ing de­clared “fully lib­er­ated,” coali­tion troops be­came a more com­mon sight on the city streets along­side Iraq’s elite mil­i­tary units.

“It changed the re­la­tion­ship,” Brown­ing said of mov­ing closer to the front and spend­ing more time with his Iraqi coun­ter­parts. “It gives me a bet­ter un­der­stand­ing of how I can bring to bear the lim­ited ca­pa­bil­i­ties I have.”

Dur­ing his Thurs­day in­ter­view, Brown­ing spoke from a mod­est for­ward Iraqi base in a small vil­lage south of Mo­sul where a liv­ing room in an aban­doned home had been con­verted into an op­er­a­tions room.

Un­der the De­cem­ber direc­tive and an ad­di­tional direc­tive is­sued a few weeks ago, Brown­ing said ad­vis­ers such as him em­bed­ded at the bri­gade level are now able to di­rectly de­liver sup­port such as airstrikes and ar­tillery fire to the units they’re part­nered with.

Pre­vi­ously, such sup­port “would have gone through a whole bu­reau­cracy and through Baghdad,” he said.


U.S. Army Lt. Col. James Brown­ing speaks Thurs­day dur­ing an in­ter­view with The As­so­ci­ated Press on a joint base with the Iraqi army south of Mo­sul, Iraq.

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