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.