Major Deliar Shouki, the commander of a string of Kurdish fire bases less than 20 miles from Mosul, admitted he was skeptical when he’d heard the news last week that a U.S. official had told Pentagon reporters that 25,000 Iraqi troops would attack the Islamic State-held city perhaps as soon as April.
“There really is no Iraqi army, so I don’t know where they get the idea that they can train 25,000 soldiers in two months to fight house to house in Mosul,” he said on Friday as he gave a visiting journalist a tour of his men’s positions on the outskirts of the tiny hamlet of Sultan Abdullah, which lies about midway between Mosul and the Kurdish capital of Irbil.
Only a few hundred yards of open ground separates his troops from the Islamic State positions, with Shouki’s men dug in deeply on the tops of hills and the Islamic State fighters occupying the tiny village below. Nearly every night, the area is the scene World War I-style battles as the extremists attempt to storm the Kurdish trenches, only to be thrown back, with heavy casualties.
“It just seems to me like the Iraqi [Arabs] lack a certain morale to be soldiers, and I don’t want to directly accuse them of anything, but every time they fight Daash, they lose ground and equipment that ends up being used against us,” he said, using the Arabic acronym for the Islamic State. “It’s very suspicious and I don’t think they want to fight them.”
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Both Shouki and the American-made armored vehicle he uses to shuttle ammunition and evacuate the wounded from his front line area are examples of how the Kurdish peshmerga adapted after the Islamic State stormed into Mosul and took over much of northern and central Iraq last summer.
Shouki isn’t exactly a major, it’s what his men call him. In fact, though, he’d retired from the peshmerga after years of fighting Saddam Hussein; when he volunteered to return as the Islamic State threatened, he was given command of one of the most bitterly contested sections of northern Iraq.
And his command vehicle once carried U.S. troops before being given to the Iraqi army when the Americans left in 2011. It was captured by the Islamic State in June when the Iraqi Army abandoned its equipment and fled before the extremists’ advance. The peshmerga captured it in battle a few months ago and immediately put it to use.
“We need more armored vehicles and heavier weapons,” Shouki explained. “We fight to defend Kurdistan and the coalition air strikes have been very helpful but we need [American] special forces ‘boots on the ground’ to help guide them in and heavier weapons if we are to drive them out of Iraq.”
“Americans need to understand we are fighting them here for you because if they stay in Mosul and take Irbil, they’ll come to New York and Washington eventually,” he added.
Over a hot lunch of chicken and eggplant brought to the base by a local family as a thank you to the troops, the commanders of this section of the front line dismissed the notion that any major operation led by the central government in Baghdad to recapture Mosul is imminent.
“The Arabs can’t take Tikrit and Bayji,” laughed one, referring to two much smaller cities held by the Islamic State. “There is no Iraqi army, just Shiite militias.”
Another dignitary, dressed in traditional Kurdish garb and heavily armed who declined to give his name but described his occupation as an “arms dealer for Kurdistan,” said the only capable fighting forces that the Iraqi Arabs can field are the Iranian-trained, -led and -equipped militias, which he said, to much agreement in the room, aren’t interested in Sunni Arab Mosul, for both sectarian and strategic reasons.
“Shiite militias and Kurds are going into Sunni Arab Mosul?” he asked. “We Kurds will fight to protect our homeland but Mosul is not, it’s the Arabs’ home. And the Shiite only care about protecting Baghdad and their areas in the south from the Sunnis of Anbar,” the Iraqi province to the west of Baghdad that has largely fallen to the Islamic State.
Adding to these concerns are the role of Shiite militias in the area south of the city of Kirkuk, which is now in Kurdish hands. The peshmerga lines and the Shiite militias’ operations intersect there, and tensions between the two forces occasionally flare into fighting, even though both are battling the the Islamic State. So far the incidents have been minor, but there are concerns they could become a major source of conflict, especially after recent statements by Shiite militia leaders that they would force the Kurds to allow them to deploy around oil-rich Kirkuk, a city the Kurds have vowed not to return to Arab control.
Shouki said it’s possible the Kurds would cooperate in an assault on Mosul, but there were in his opinion many conditions that would need to be met: the government in Baghdad would have to assemble an army, give the Kurds significant amounts of weapons, and pay some of the nearly $6 billion it owes the Kurdish regional government.
In addition, he said, Kurdish cooperation is likely to depend on the United States agreeing to put combat air controllers on the ground to ensure the accuracy of air strikes, something the Pentagon has said might be possible, but that would place U.S. troops in danger.
“We are the only ones fighting and dying,” he said.
That sacrifice is obvious at one of the tiny hillside fire bases overlooking Sultan Abdullah. The Kurds’ bunkers there were deep for protection from the better-equipped Islamic State artillery, and sand bags covered a series of trenches that were surrounded by barbed wire.
The Kurds are better armed now than they were last summer, thanks to donations of gear from the United States and Germany and British logistical help that brought in large amounts of ammunition from former Soviet stockpiles. But the peshmerga still lack the heavy artillery and armored vehicles the Islamic State has.
Pointing at his command vehicle, Shouki noted that the Iraqi army abandoned about 2,000 similar vehicles last June; his men have one, plus about dozen American-made Humvees mounted with heavy machine guns.
Still, his men are able to hold off the Islamic State’s frontal assaults on their positions, thanks to the German anti-tank weapons they’ve been given – the Milan guided anti-tank missile and the Panzerfaust anti-tank rocket system.
The men described a battle last Wednesday night, where under the cover of fog, Islamic State fighters – estimated in the hundreds – pushed to within 25 yards of these trenches, sparking a five-hour close quarters gunfight that left the peshmerga unsupported by coalition air power.
“They told us we were on our own because both sides were too close to bomb,” said one peshmerga fighter as he stared down the barrel of his PKM medium machine gun through a slit in the sandbags at the Islamic State lines just a few hundred meters away.
He described the pitched battle that followed. “Normally it’s harder to throw grenades up than down but in this case it was the opposite,” he said. “All the Daash guys had to do was get their grenades over our sandbags and that was it. But they were so close, we had to hold our grenades live for a few seconds so they would go off before they rolled past the Daash guys.”
He pointed to dark shapes throughout the field. “You can still see a lot of their bodies, I don’t know how many but nobody can go out there to get them.”
Shouki said in that fight they recovered 38 Islamic State fighter bodies, many snared on the barbed wire just outside the trenches, while his men lost one killed and six wounded, all from grenades. He claims the Islamic State death toll was likely much higher; once the Islamic State fighters retreated, coalition air power was able to go to work.
“Daash is a lot less powerful now because of the planes,” he said. “They can still attack but we see them growing weaker because they can’t reinforce or retreat without getting hit. But we also get their best fighters attacking here because it is important, mostly foreign fighters with good training and discipline.”
The same position was hit again Saturday, according to a text message from Shouki. This time, he said, 53 extremists were killed and about a dozen of his own men were wounded, but the bunkers and trenches held.