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Iraqi Forces Open a Front in West Mosul, Trying to Squeeze ISIS

Iraqi forces opened a new front in western Mosul on Thursday in a major shift intended to accelerate an operation that had slowed to a crawl, leaving hundreds of thousands of civilians trapped on an urban battlefield.

The attack began early in the day as the Ninth Division of the Iraqi Army and Interior Ministry troops who had been pulled from another combat assignment started pushing into Mosul from the north, according to an Iraqi military statement.

The Iraqi Counterterrorism Service has been clawing its way from the south, and the goal of the new operation is to force the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, to fight in multiple directions and collapse its defenses.

Hinting at the change of strategy, Lt. Gen. Othman al-Ghanmi, the Iraqi Army's chief of staff, recently told a state-run newspaper that the battle for Mosul, now in its seventh month, would be won "in a maximum of three weeks."

Still, the Iraqi forces face hundreds of militants who appear determined to fight to the end in neighborhoods still teeming with hungry and increasingly desperate civilians.

The new operation will also require careful synchronization among the Iraqi Army, Interior Ministry troops and the Counterterrorism Service, which report to different authorities in Baghdad and sometimes seem to be fighting separate wars.

Tensions among Iraq's disparate forces came to the fore in a closed-door meeting that Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi convened in mid-April in Hamam al-Alil, a town nestled on the Tigris River about 15 miles southeast of Mosul. Outfitted in the black uniform of the Counterterrorism Service, Mr. Abadi warned his commanders that prolonging the battle for the city would only play into the hands of the Islamic State and signaled that it was time to pick up the pace.

But that was followed by sharp debate among frustrated Iraqi commanders about which of their units have been making the greatest sacrifice and who should shoulder the burden of the next stage of the battle.

Lt. Gen. Raed Shaker Jawdat, the commander of the Federal Police, which have suffered many casualties as they advanced from the south along the Tigris, complained that his force was fighting hard but that the Iraqi Army had yet to push into the city, filled with snipers and car bombs.

But Lt. Gen. Abdul-Amir Rasheed Yar Allah, the head of the operations center in Nineveh Province, who is overseeing the Mosul battle, pointed the finger at the Federal Police, complaining that their once audacious assault was no longer gaining ground.

Highlighting the stakes, the meeting hall was decorated with the portraits of Iraqi troops killed in the campaign against the Islamic State.

"The point of the meeting was to ask if the Federal Police have done their job and how to get the army to participate more in the fighting inside the city," said Lt. Gen. Abdul-Wahab al-Saadi, a senior commander with the Counterterrorism Service, who attended the meeting.

"Each of the leaders was trying to say his force had done the best, but let's see the reality on the ground," General Saadi added, asserting that his Counterterrorism Service had reclaimed the most territory from the Islamic State.

In the days of consultations with his fellow commanders that followed, General Yar Allah appeared to have overcome many of the strains and built a consensus on a new plan. It gives the Ninth Division a new role and has been quietly supported by Lt. Gen. Stephen J. Townsend, who commands the American-led task force that is fighting the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.

The Ninth Division, an armored unit, had positioned itself to the north of Mosul after fighting its way along a dusty ridge west of the city to cut the Islamic State's supply lines and potential escape routes to the west.

The division's southward push is being reinforced by troops from the Emergency Response Division, which answers to the Interior Ministry, and two army brigades that were pulled from security duties in eastern Mosul and near Tal Afar.

The theory is that attacking from the north will force the Islamic State to split its defensive operations and make it easier for the Counterterrorism Service to make headway from the south. The Federal Police are also holding their position in the southern part of western Mosul.

The operation has been timed to coincide with clear weather so that American Apache attack helicopters, armed drones and warplanes flown by the United States and allies can provide ready air support. At least one Iraqi F-16 also carried out airstrikes; the Iraqi military said the target was factories making car bombs.

But reinforcing the Ninth Division will involve trade-offs. At least some of the Emergency Response forces that have been sent to augment the division have been repositioned from southwestern Mosul.

That will remove some of the military pressure on Islamic State fighters in the densely packed old section of Mosul, which still looms as the most difficult battlefield and includes the Great Mosque where Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of the Islamic State, delivered a public sermon in July 2014.

Iraqi commanders appear to be calculating that they can clear much of western Mosul and leave the old city for last.

Col. John L. Dorrian, a spokesman for the American-led command in Baghdad, said on Wednesday that the Islamic State force in Mosul was "well short of a thousand fighters" but added that they were "going to be very difficult to get out."

"When in that type of dense urban terrain, a small number of fighters can control that territory," he added.

The Counterterrorism Service was established by the United States soon after the 2003 invasion to conduct raids to capture or kill militants. It reports directly to the prime minister and has assumed a lead role in large-scale urban operations against the Islamic State because it is the best trained and most capable of Iraq's fighting forces.

The Iraqi Army, which the American-led coalition has worked to rebuild after the loss of Mosul to the Islamic State in 2014, reports to the Defense Ministry. The Federal Police and the Emergency Response Division both report to the Interior Ministry.

"The organizations involved in the Mosul campaign have different reporting chains," said David M. Witty, a retired Special Forces colonel with the United States Army and a former adviser to the Counterterrorism Service. "The various ministries that the units report to are competing fiefdoms, each struggling for power, influence, prestige and resources."

The Iraqis struggled to synchronize their forces when they began their offensive to retake the eastern half of Mosul in October. But officials with the United States military insist that coordination among the Iraqi forces later improved with the help of American advisers.

[Source: By Michael R. Gordon, The New York Times, 04May17]

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small logoThis document has been published on 11May17 by the Equipo Nizkor and Derechos Human Rights. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.