From a sandbagged hilltop outpost here, you can see the front line of the Islamic State in the muddy brown houses of Al-Nasr, a village on the next ridgeline, about a mile-and-a-half west. The Iraqi army was supposed to have captured this target a month ago. But the offensive was repelled.
The battle for Mosul, about 35 miles north, must begin with the seizure of such Islamic State positions along the Tigris River. But the Iraqi army isn’t ready yet to take a small, well-fortified village such as Al-Nasr. So it’s hard to imagine that Mosul itself could be cleared by the end of the year, as the Obama administration has hoped.
The staging area for the Mosul battle is Makhmour, a few miles south of here. An Iraqi army division has set up its headquarters there, alongside Kurdish peshmerga fighters. U.S. combat advisers are in Makhmour, too, although they weren’t visible Thursday.
“I have limited forces,” says Maj. Gen. Najim Abed al-Jabouri, the Iraqi commander for the Mosul offensive. He has about 5,000 troops but says that he needs a force six times larger and an attack plan that hits Mosul from all sides. The recent political chaos in Baghdad has hurt army morale and made planning more difficult, he says. “We try to move toward the correct way, but the corruption in Iraq is very deep.”
U.S. air power helped the Iraqis capture the nearby village of Mahana this week. The Iraqis were able to walk in, virtually unopposed. “We are a team, always,” Jabouri says of the growing U.S. forces in Iraq.
The “day after” in Mosul may be an even bigger problem than the assault itself. Gen. Najat Ali, the commander of Kurdish forces in Makhmour, says that a political agreement is needed now on governing the big, multiethnic city once the Islamic State is driven out. “We are afraid, after we liberate Mosul, how we will rule,” he says. He’s dressed in the baggy trousers and tunic that are the traditional Kurdish uniform.
The Kurds are probably the toughest fighters in Iraq, and they’ve had the best success against the Islamic State. But they are desperately short of heavy weapons and ammunition, as I discovered during my brief visit to their front lines.
At the Kurdish hilltop observation post at Wadi Mashar, Lt. Col. Taher Argushi says his forces are hit almost daily with rocket and mortar fire from Al-Nasr and were attacked last year by mustard gas. But Kurds here have no heavy artillery or rockets, no chemical-weapons suits, and they lack enough ammunition to fire back regularly at the extremists.
Asked whether the Kurds’ partners in the Iraqi army are good fighters, Argushi answers that with the Iraqis’ limited progress, despite having abundant weapons, ammunition and U.S. air support, “you must say ‘not good.’ ”
“The Iraqi regular army, trust me, they are not in a position to do this alone,” says Masrour Barzani, the national security adviser and intelligence chief for the Kurdistan Regional Government, speaking at his headquarters in Irbil. He said that the Makhmour area must be cleared soon by the Iraqi army — so that Mosul is surrounded from the south, as well as from the areas north, east and west of the city already captured by Kurdish forces.
Barzani worries about slow preparation, on both the military and political fronts: “We asked for a plan for taking Mosul. The Iraqi Army doesn’t have a plan yet, or they’re not sharing it with us.”
While Kurdish forces are committed to the Mosul campaign, Barzani said they can’t take the lead in Arab areas. He also stressed the future difficulty of governing a diverse city that has Arabs, Kurds and Turkmen; Sunni and Shiite Muslims; Christians and Yazidis. “There has to be a political agreement so that all the elements of Mosul will be happy and able to live there.”
Some Iraqi officials talk hopefully of an uprising among the local population in Mosul to expel the Islamic State. “This is wishful thinking,” Barzani says. He explains that Mosul’s residents won’t stick their necks out unless they are certain the offensive will succeed.
A dramatic sign of the Obama administration’s stake in this fight came with Vice President Biden’s surprise visit to Baghdad on Thursday. The attack on Mosul will be the decisive moment in this U.S.-backed campaign, but the evidence from the battlefront suggests that a successful assault is still many months away.