Iraqi forces warned of friendly fire dan­ger in Mosul

The Washington Post Sunday - - THE WORLD - BY 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.

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.

PHO­TOS BY AH­MAD AL-RUBAYE/AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE VIA GETTY IMAGES

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.

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