Mariwan Mohammed, a senior commander in the Iraqi Kurdish military, and his men are usually based around the Kirkuk area, near their home in the semi-autonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan. And some had thought that the local Kurdish military there might first be dispatched to the town of Hawija, a Sunni-Muslim-majority town. However, Mohammed and around 11,000 men under his command were called to take part in the operations to push the extremist Islamic State group out of Mosul instead.
Mohammed and his men are working their way towards Mosul from Khazar, around 40 kilometres east of Mosul, with tanks and armoured vehicles.
In an interview with NIQASH, the commander confirmed that the unusual cooperation between the Kurdish and Iraqi forces was proceeding smoothly, that, as agreed with Baghdad, his forces would not get involved in fighting inside Mosul city and that, although his men were ordered toward Mosul, they were still prepared and ready for any orders to head back and fight in Hawija too.
It will be difficult for Kurdish soldiers to withdraw from Kurdish-majority areas, even if they are outside Iraqi Kurdistan.
NIQASH: In Iraqi Kurdistan a lot of people have been discussing whether it is even a good idea for Kurdish soldiers to take part in this battle, inside Iraq. What can you tell us about how the decision to participate was made?
Mariwan Mohammed: The decision was made after a delegation from Iraqi Kurdistan went to Baghdad to meet with Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi. We told everyone there that if the Iraqi army needed us, the Iraqi Kurdish military were ready to fight. However there needed to be prior agreements between us about this.
NIQASH: How long do you think it will take before the extremists are driven out of Mosul?
Mohammed: It is going to take a long time until we completely clear them out. I know that we can defeat them in a military sense but it is obvious we cannot get rid of them completely through military means. They will no longer have any ability to attack and that will reduce the risks to the Iraqi Kurdish region.
NIQASH: What conclusions have you come to after the past few days of fighting?
Mohammed: The Islamic State has certainly lost any opportunity to attack. So they have two options now: To escape or to defend. We are going to win no matter what option they choose. Our forces are well prepared and there is great cooperation between the Iraqi army and the aircraft of the international coalition.
NIQASH: What are the biggest obstacles to success at the moment?
Mohammed: The Islamic State has fewer infantry but their explosive devices and their booby-trapped, armoured cars have caused us casualties. They have already detonated four cars. But we don’t see this as an obstacle. We are trying to get rid of those things.
NIQASH: Where will Iraqi Kurdish forces go after Mosul?
Mohammed: Our forces will not be fighting in the cities as they are only there to fight terrorism.
NIQASH: Will your forces withdraw from the areas they liberate, after the Islamic State has left?
Mohammed: Our forces will not be part of any political conflict. There must be a decision made between Iraqi Kurdistan and Baghdad as to the ongoing presence, or not, of Iraqi Kurdish forces in the areas they liberate. But personally I think it will be difficult for the Kurdish soldiers to withdraw from Kurdish-majority areas, even if they are outside the borders of Iraqi Kurdistan.
NIQASH: You have withdrawn some forces from around Hawija. Does that mean you have abandoned this district and the areas around Kirkuk?
Mohammed: There are more soldiers than the 35,000 taking part in this mission. We only moved our troops after we had secured all the other fronts around Kirkuk. We are ready to help regain control of Hawija. We have completed all our preparations to start on this mission and we’re only waiting for the order to go in [regarding Hawija].
NIQASH: Would you say that the Iraqi Kurdish region and Kirkuk are no longer under threat from the IS group?
Mohammed: There is no clear and present danger. But it wouldn’t be correct to say there is absolutely no danger. That won’t happen until we completely rid the country of the IS group’s loyalists.