In a hastily built military barracks in western Mosul, an Iraqi army officer says he and several colleagues are sitting at a table with a map, that shows the city’s neighbourhoods as well as the various areas in which the Iraqi military is operating. This would not in itself be an unusual scene. But what is different from previous months, he says, is that now some of the officer’s colleagues at this table are American.
“The fighting for the western side of Mosul is different,” Ahmad al-Jibouri*, the officer in question, told NIQASH, speaking on the phone from the front lines. “When we were on the other side of the city we were fighting alone. We had a lot of losses. We needed weeks to deal with the Islamic State’s tactics. But now we need only a few hours, thanks to the help of the US soldiers.”
Iraqi forces have been fighting the extremist group known as the Islamic State, or IS, in the northern city of Mosul since October. Late last year the battle moved from one side of Mosul to the other. The Tigris River passes through Mosul and locals usually refer to being on the left or right bank, or left or right side, of the river, with the left bank being Mosul’s eastern side and the right being the city’s west.
A few months ago, coordinating with the US forces was really complicated. The situation is very different now.
The US government had already declared its intention to fight the IS group in 2014, when the extremists first took control of Mosul and other parts of Iraq. But up until very recently US forces had only been involved in the air above Iraqi pro-government forces who were fighting the IS group.
In February, the Iraqi army’s 9th Division got orders from the Iraqi government that they should integrate with the US’ 82nd Airborne Division's 2nd Brigade Combat Team. The first meeting between the US and Iraqi officers was a long one – and a nostalgic one, according to al-Jibouri.
“We spent hours talking about how we fought alongside one another against Al Qaeda years ago,” al-Jibouri recalled.
After nine years in Iraq, most US forces pulled out of Iraq in 2011, after the two countries’ governments were unable to come to an agreement about how many US troops should stay and under what conditions. And some have said that the withdrawal was too quick and that the Iraqi military was unprepared to take on the next incarnation of Al Qaeda in Iraq – which then evolved into the Islamic State group – without US help.
After Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi visited the new US president Donald Trump this week in Washington, Trump appeared to agree with that, telling reporters that, “we should never ever have left”.
This is obviously despite the fact that many Iraqis saw the US troops in their country as an occupying force, and that part of the reason the past Iraqi government under Nouri al-Maliki and the Obama administration couldn’t come to an agreement was because of strong popular opinion against US soldiers being there.
While some Iraqis are certainly still opposed to an ongoing US troop presence in their country, the fight against the IS group appears to have eased restrictions against American soldiers in Iraq. There are estimated to be over 5,000 US troops now in Iraq, some of them on the very front lines in the fight against the IS group and some far from any military action, elsewhere in the country. Some Iraqi politicians have said there are many more than 5,000 but, given official US numbers, they appear to be exaggerating.
In the southern suburbs of Mosul, Mazen al-Mayahi’s unit of the Iraqi federal police now has some US soldiers fighting with it, and his men are coordinating with US troops in the town of Hamam al-Alil, south of Mosul.
“A few months ago, coordinating with the US forces was really complicated and it used to take a long time,” al-Mayahi* told NIQASH during a meeting in Qayyarah. “Iraqi soldiers on the front lines would send the coordinates of where the IS fighters were to their officer in the field, who would then send them onto the joint operations room inside the Green Zone [a heavily fortified diplomatic and government area] in Baghdad. There the information would be given to the US forces and used to launch air strikes. This used to take hours and the extremists would always be moving on, before anything happened,” says al-Mayahi, who is very pleased about the new levels of cooperation, believing that it will help to defeat the IS group faster.
“The situation is very different now,” he says. “Iraqi soldiers give the information directly to the US troops who are stationed only a few kilometres away. Artillery response and air strikes are usually quick and accurate.”
Despite the many reports of tough fighting and high numbers of civilian casualties in western Mosul, al-Mayahi says he feels as though the fighting on this side of the city has been easier. The battle for the western side of Mosul was always expected to be hard going. There the population density is higher and there are many houses built close to one another in an old city with narrow alleyways, that won’t allow larger vehicles like tanks or armoured vehicles to pass easily.
“But the US troops here have a lot of experience,” al-Mayahi says. “They deal with the problems that face the soldiers in those neighbourhoods with the narrow streets in a matter of hours.”
Al-Mayahi also says that the drones that were being used by the IS group earlier in the fight over Mosul are no longer a problem. The drones used to monitor the Iraqi pro-government forces’ movements and drop improvised explosive devices or grenades on them, before the soldiers could shoot them down.
“We are benefitting from the US forces being here, no doubt,” says Abdallah al-Badrani, another Iraqi army officer based in Qayyarah who met NIQASH. His unit had fought alongside US soldiers in 2006 and 2007, against Al Qaeda, he said, and he was pleased to see them back.
Al-Badrani says the soldiers and officers are getting to know their US colleagues and they have been admiring the advanced US military equipment. They also take a lot of selfies with their new American colleagues, he reports.
“When the US withdrew from Iraq in 2011, they handed over well organized and fully equipped military bases,” al-Badrani adds. “But the corruption in this country means that the bases were neglected. When the US soldiers returned back to some of those bases in Baghdad, they were shocked.”
While the Iraqi soldiers NIQASH spoke with were pleased about the increased US assistance, some controversial questions remain. As many have pointed out, nobody has yet addressed how long US troops will remain in Iraq after the IS group have been pushed out of the country. There will definitely be an ongoing danger of terrorist activities and of the group’s resurgence elsewhere in the country and it is hard to say whether US troops will be needed in Iraq on an ongoing basis, and whether they will continue to be welcomed by all sectors of the populace.
Right now nobody in Iraq or the US seems willing to tackle that issue thoroughly.
But as everybody in Iraq knows, many of the pro-government and anti-IS factions – the formerly-volunteer Shiite Muslim militias – are opposed to an ongoing US presence in Iraq.
Even within the Shiite Muslim militias though, opinions on US help are divided. For example, one of the militias more closely affiliated with Iraq’s senior spiritual leader, Ali al-Sistani, is actually fighting with the 9th Iraqi Division in Mosul, and therefore, also alongside the US troops. Yet other Shiite Muslim militias have threatened to fight against any US troops remaining in the country unnecessarily, saying that they are occupiers who must be expelled.
Once again, the question of what happens next will doubtless only be answered once the IS group have been more or less expelled from Iraq.
*The names of the officers in this story have been changed because none of them were authorized to give statements. It was not possible to speak to US soldiers in the area.
Photos sourced from US troops' Facebook page.