Iraqi soldier, Major General Fadhil Jalil Barwari, now commands Iraq’s elite Counter-Terrorism Service, which includes the black-clad commando brigade known as the Golden Division. These crack troops are making slow progress inside the northern city of Mosul, fighting a street-by-street battle against the extremist group known as the Islamic State, who have controlled the city for over two years, and they are taking losses.
Barwari, Kurdish by birth and originally from Dohuk, spoke to NIQASH about why the fighting is so slow, how his troops are countering extremist propaganda about them and when he thinks the battle will end.
NIQASH: It's been more than two months since the start of operations in Mosul. What sort of progress have you made?
Fadhil Jalil Barwari: We have achieved many of our important goals. We have the corpses of 2,330 IS fighters and we have seized many tanks and much ammunition. But this battle is different from those in Ramadi and Fallujah, where the extremists withdrew and didn’t put up much of a fight.
More than 20 neighbourhoods have been liberated and we are still advancing. However, we have not yet been able to block the city’s exits. The IS fighters can still escape whenever they want.
We need people to trust us. The people of Mosul are our people - but we are fighting a street war, and that makes it more difficult.
NIQASH: Some have said that this fight is going very slowly.
Barwari: If there were no civilians, getting rid of the extremists in Mosul wouldn’t have been that difficult. We would easily have been able to control the main bridges and clean the city. But in this case, we are dealing with two major tasks. We have to fight the extremists on one hand and play a humanitarian role, on the other hand. We need to protect civilian lives and ensure medical supplies and food get into the city. We want to get rid of the IS group without damaging private property or killing innocents. That’s why things are going so slowly.
And we’ve been told that our concern for civilians is why the people in Mosul want to see us fighting in their neighbourhoods first.
NIQASH: So, it is the counter-terrorism troops’ responsibility to provide food?
Barwari: There are difficult conditions here for civilians, in terms of basic supplies. The Ministry of Displacement and Migration sought our help to deliver food to the areas we have expelled the IS group from, so we’re doing that.
NIQASH: What sort of response have you had from civilians in Mosul?
Barwari: We’ve been welcomed. In fact, the IS group spread rumours that if Fadhil Barwari entered the city, he was going to destroy it. Their propaganda said that we were bringing explosives to blow the whole place up. But as soon as we arrived, and people saw that this was not going to happen and that all we wanted to do was to expel the IS group, as well as try to protect them and their property, then they welcomed us.
NIQASH: But there have been some rumours about Iraqi forces damaging private property.
Barwari: From the start, we’ve had a checkpoint in Bartala to make sure that not even a pin leaves the city without permission. We also have security cameras installed to prevent theft or looting. Even the people of Mosul, if they want to move furniture or other possessions, have to follow certain rules and get permission. We’re trying very hard not to cause any further damage for people here.
NIQASH: Is the fighting displacing a lot of people?
Barwari: There are an estimated 700,000 civilians who have remained in their homes. They are living in relative peace and the responsible Iraqi government ministries and various NGOs are providing them with supplies.
One of the biggest challenges is that we need people to trust us. The people of Mosul are our people - but we are fighting a street war, and that makes it more difficult to protect them. This is also why we are calling on people to stay in their houses and not to go onto their rooves.
NIQASH: Can you tell us a little more about who is fighting in Mosul and where?
Barwari: In addition to our own Golden Division forces, there are the 15th, the 9th and the 16th Divisions fighting – but many haven’t yet entered the city. Some of them got to the city entrances but they haven’t come in. Our own forces – three brigades - are being assisted by other counter-terrorism troops and we are really fighting an urban war, street by street.
NIQASH: And how do you find working with the international coalition, formed to fight the IS group?
Barwari: Our relationship with the international coalition is a very good one. There is a very high level of coordination between us. But the artillery and planes cannot bomb areas inside Mosul because many people have stayed in their houses.
NIQASH: Being Kurdish yourself, how would you describe the relationship between your forces and the Iraqi Kurdish military, also known as the Peshmerga?
Barwari: The agreement that the Iraqi army and the Peshmerga came to was excellent. It’s the first time the two forces have fought together and it really works. It’s a very positive step.
NIQASH: So, when do you expect Mosul to be completely free and clear of the extremists?
Barwari: It’s not possible to put a date on this. We are advancing slowly, to try and keep civilians safe. And we want to maintain the Golden Division’s reputation; we don’t want anyone to suffer because of us.
NIQASH: Do you know where the IS group’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, is?
Barwari: Ten years ago, we detained al-Baghdadi, so we have enough information about him to track him. We believe he is now in Biaj, west of Mosul, hiding in an underground bunker. He changes his location all the time, and he also changes his appearance.
NIQASH: Some critics have said that after this fight for Mosul is over, the Iraqi army needs to be reorganized.
Barwari: That’s true. The Iraqi army, the police, the volunteer militias are being trained by this fighting and they will continue to receive more training in the future.
If we really want a better future for ourselves and our children and grandchildren, and if we want to guard against similar problems – such as those posed by the IS group – then this is very important.