U.S. ex­pands its role in Mosul cam­paign

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - INTERNATIONAL - SUSANNAH GE­ORGE

MOSUL, Iraq — The day af­ter Iraq’s prime min­is­ter de­clared an end to the Is­lamic State group’s caliphate, U.S. Army Col. Pat Work and a small team of about a dozen sol­diers drove through west­ern Mosul in two un­marked ar­mored ve­hi­cles to warn Iraqi forces of a press­ing threat: friendly fire.

The Amer­i­can colonel had a se­ries of ur­gent face-to-face meet­ings with gen­er­als from the Iraqi army, the fed­eral po­lice and the Iraqi spe­cial forces ahead of a ma­jor of­fen­sive Satur­day morn­ing to clear out the re­main­ing Is­lamic State po- sitions in Mosul.

Amer­i­can troops are tak­ing on an in­creas­ingly prom­i­nent role in the fight. Once largely re­stricted to work­ing in highly for­ti­fied Iraqi bases, U.S. com- man­ders now travel in and around Mosul with small teams of sol­diers, shar­ing in­tel­li­gence and ad­vis­ing plans of at­tack, re­veal­ing how the U.S. role in Iraq has steadily deep­ened through­out the op­er­a­tion to re­take the coun­try’s sec­ond largest city.

The gains in the Old City bring­ing Iraqi troops closer to vic­tory against the Is­lamic State in Mosul have also meant the three branches of the coun­try’s se­cu­rity forces are now fight­ing in closer quar­ters than ever be­fore.

Weav­ing in and out of civil­ian traf­fic along the city’s main thor­ough­fares, thick plumes of black smoke from airstrikes and ar­tillery were just vis­i­ble on the hori­zon from Work’s con­voy. He ex­plained that the new bat­tle space and lin­ger­ing com­mu­ni­ca­tion short­com­ings mean Iraqi ground troops are at in­creased risk of be­ing hit by non­preci­sion fire like mor­tars and ar­tillery launched by their part­ner Iraqi forces

“We’re help­ing [Iraqi forces] see across the boundaries be­tween their dif­fer­ent units… just help­ing them un­der­stand where they are and how rapidly things might be chang­ing,” Work said.

Through­out the course of the day Work shut­tled be­tween bases, meet­ing with Iraqi com­man­ders deep in­side Mosul. While the U.S.-led coali­tion has closely backed Iraqi forces with airstrikes in a num­ber of fights against the Is­lamic State, the Mosul op­er­a­tion is the first time U.S. troops have openly part­nered with Iraqi forces on the ground within just a few miles of front-line fight­ing.

“It’s a very vi­o­lent close fight,” said Work, the com­man­der of the 82nd Air­borne’s 2nd Bri­gade Com­bat Team who de­ployed to Iraq in Jan­uary. “When the bul­lets aren’t enough the [Iraqi] com­man­ders want to turn to high ex­plo­sives which might be mor­tars or ar­tillery… so un­der­stand­ing where the other guy is all the time is kind of rule num­ber one, so the lethal ef­fect is di­rected at the tar­get and not ac­ci­den­tally at an­other player that’s on your team.”

The var­i­ous forces that make up Iraq’s mil­i­tary have long strug­gled with co­or­di­na­tion. While the Mosul op­er­a­tion is over­seen by a joint op­er­a­tions com­mand and the prime min­is­ter, forces on the ground main­tain in­de­pen­dent com­mand struc­tures, stan­dards and cul­tures. The Mosul fight is the first time all three forces have had to co­op­er­ate in an ur­ban en­vi­ron­ment and through­out the op­er­a­tion the army, fed­eral po­lice and spe­cial forces have faced deadly set­backs when they acted in­de­pen­dently, al­low­ing Is­lamic State fighters to con­cen­trate their de­fenses on a sin­gle front.

One of Work’s stops was at a mod­est house in a res­i­den­tial west Mosul neigh­bor­hood. About a dozen U.S. troops and Iraqi sol­diers were hunched over com­put­ers iden­ti­fy­ing Is­lamic State tar­gets just a few hun­dred yards away ahead of the next day’s op­er­a­tion. The pres­ence of U.S. forces at the small pa­trol base deep in­side Mosul is a level of sup­port that had not been au­tho­rized when the Mosul fight first be­gan.

Un­der the ad­min­is­tra­tion of U.S. Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump, De­fense Sec­re­tary James Mat­tis moved U.S. com­bat ad­vis­ers closer to the fight by au­tho­riz­ing U.S. troops to part­ner with Iraqi forces at the bat­tal­ion level.

The U.S.-led coali­tion’s fight against the Is­lamic State in Iraq has slowly ex­panded over the past three years from a cam­paign of airstrikes car­ried out by coali­tion forces who largely stayed in heav­ily for­ti­fied bases to an op­er­a­tion with some 6,000 Amer­i­can troops on the ground, many op­er­at­ing close to front-line fight­ing.

Be­tween meet­ings, as Work’s ve­hi­cle rolled through a traf­fic cir­cle in west­ern Mosul, he said be­ing on the ground be­side his Iraqi coun­ter­parts is es­sen­tial.

“For any com­man­der there is no sub­sti­tute for see­ing it with your own eyes … for talk­ing to the stake hold­ers who are in it mak­ing the de­ci­sions ev­ery day. ISIS has no boundaries,” he said, us­ing an acro­nym for the Is­lamic State group, “So our ad­viser net­work can’t have any boundaries. And so part of it is get­ting out there daily to see it.”

AP/BALINT SZLANKO

Col. Pat Work with the U.S. Army’s 82nd Air­borne Di­vi­sion refers to the sky­line Fri­day as he meets with Iraqi com­man­ders near the front lines on the rooftop of a house in Mosul.

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