Iraqi forces warned of friendly fire danger in Mosul
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.
Work 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 militant group’s remaining positions in Mosul.
American troops are taking on an increasingly prominent role in the fight. Once largely restricted to working within highly fortified Iraqi bases, U.S. commanders now travel in and around Mosul with small teams of soldiers, sharing intelligence and advising on plans of attack, revealing how the United States’ role has steadily deepened throughout the operation to retake Iraq’s second-largest city.
The gains in Mosul’s Old City have also meant that the three branches of Iraq’s security forces are now fighting in their closest quarters. 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 that Iraqi ground troops are at increased risk of being hit by non-precision fire, such as mortars and artillery shells, 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.
While the U.S.-led coalition has closely backed Iraqi forces with airstrikes in a number of fights against Islamic State forces, the Mosul operation marks the first time that 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. “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 kinda rule number one.”
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. Throughout the operation, the army, federal police and special forces have faced deadly setbacks when they acted independently, which allowed fighters with the Islamic State to concentrate their defenses on a single front.
The vast majority of Mosul has been retaken, but Work said that he does not expect that outcome will necessarily mean an end to the U.S. role in the campaign.
“Mosul is going to be a challenge; ISIS is going to continue to challenge the hold,” he said. He also indicated that U.S. troops would continue to facilitate coordination and provide advice to security forces in Mosul just as they did during the offensive.
“We will continue to help Iraqi commanders recognize that this is what you fought for,” Work said.
TOP: Iraqi civilians carry an elderly woman in a chair while moving her to relative safety in Mosul’s Old City, where forces are pushing to remove Islamic State fighters from their last positions there.
LEFT: An Iraqi soldier stands guard as civilians gather to be evacuated from the city.