US troops, thousands of Iraqi forces, the Peshmerga and pro-Baghdad tribes just five kilometres from front line
BAGHDAD - US combat troops on the ground near Mosul have actively engaged in a military offensive launched by the Iraqi army on Thursday, Middle East Eye can reveal.
According to Iraqi military officers, the US has more than 200 ground combat troops participating in the offensive to retake the Islamic State (IS) group's Iraqi capital, which the militants seized in a sweeping raid in June 2014.
A US marine was killed in combat and others wounded on Saturday in the camp when it came under rocket fire from IS militants. They struck again on Monday, while media reports suggest no US personnel were injured and that two IS fighters were killed. Military sources told MEE that many Iraqi soldiers were either killed or wounded.
"The US artillery and (the US-led) jets have not stopped even for a minute. Their participation is very crucial in this battle," Rishad Ghalali, the commander of Peshmerga forces in Makhmour told Middle East Eye by phone.
"They (US troops) participated in the operation from the ground and the sky. Their (US) artilleries and rocket launchers have not stopped," Ghalali said.
A US military spokesman confirmed that US forces supported the Iraqi army both with air strikes and artillery support. “Yes, we supported them with counter-battery fire and air strikes.
“Operations were successful, and the Iraqi forces accomplished [their goals], they are continuing those operations."
“These operations, of course, have to do with the Mosul operation as well. If you do not take these villages at the entrance of Mosul, how can you enter Mosul?” Peshmerga General Kakl Mamand told Middle East Eye.
“You would have to parachute them in, before the Mosul operation takes place, so first you have to take the surrounding areas of Mosul, and then Mosul. The first step is Qayyarah, and then the army has other plans for other areas,” he added.
An Iraqi military commander in Makhmour, who was not authorised to speak to the media and spoke on the condition of anonymity, confirmed the information to MEE. Two separate Iraqi military sources also verified the information.
The sources all said that Iraqi troops have been moved toward Mosul from the Makhmour military camp in northern Iraq and are directly engaging the enemy on this front for the first time since the war against IS started in September 2014.
The Iraqi army, backed by US artillery and US-led coalition military jets, have led a "limited" military operation to regain control over a mountain range stretching from south Makhmour to south-western Makhmour, the senior source said.
The camp, also known as Firebase Bell, is some 50km from Mosul but just five kilometres from the front-line against IS.
Last month Defence Secretary Ash Carter said the US would step up support for Iraqi forces in Mosul but the extent of this support was not made clear.
"Will we do more to enable [Iraqi forces] as they go north? Yes, we fully expect to do that," Carter told reporters at a briefing on Monday.
"That includes, in addition to directly enabling Iraqi forces, some things like logistics and bridging and there are a whole lot of capabilities," he added.
For weeks, thousands of Iraqi troops have been gathering in Makhmour military camp where they have been stationed along with 300 US personnel including combat staff, trainers and advisors. Kurdish Peshmerga forces and anti-IS tribal fighters have also been at the base, the sources said.
Atheer Adel, a border guard with the Peshmerga told MEE that his people wanted the Americans but not the controversial Shia militias to push on.
"Even our children want the Americans not the Hasdh [Shia militia] forces,” he said. “There is going to be a strong blows to IS, they will be finished off quickly."
“We got information from Shirqat, that IS fighters are scared from the US army," he added.
However, progress has been limited so far. Iraqi media and military sources said that just six villages were liberated so far while huge swathes of mountainous terrain remain in IS control.
Military sources in Makhmour Camp told MEE that Peshmerga troops have not participated in the offensive thus far but hundreds of anti-IS Sunni tribal fighters have joined the anti-IS fight.
Long wait for offensive
The Mosul offensive has been months in the making, with reports emerging late last year that moves were underway to try and retake the city.
However, the poor state of the Iraqi army – which collapsed when faced with the IS assault in 2014 – has long held back plans of an offensive. Many experts have long questioned the ability to take and hold the city without a formidable Sunni military force – Iraqi army forces tend to be Shia-dominated while many Iraqis fear Kurdish aspirations in the north.
The seething Sunni discontentment over the growing influence of the Kurds and Shia in Iraq has long been credited with IS’s ability to seize and hold a key city like Mosul.
The Kurds have managed to push IS south last year and the Iraqi army and loyal tribes have more recently made inroads against IS in the southwest, including in the restive Anbar province. Until now no one has dared to challenge IS this close to Mosul.
Most of the villages in southern Makhmour and west southern Makhmour are still in the hands of the militants and IS fighters have taken advantage of the surrounding mountain range to attack the camp with rockets, which is hindering a wider offensive on Mosul.
The Iraqi military source said that the first stage of the Mosul offensive aims to liberate 14 of these villages and to secure Makhmour camp before using it as a launchpad to seize control of the mountain range, Iraqi military officers told MEE.
If Iraqi security forces retook these villages, Qayyarah - a town 290km north of Baghdad - will "be liberated without fighting," officers said.
"In militarily terms, if Qayyarah falls into our hands, the tribes of Mosul will rage against Daesh," the senior military officer who spoke on condition of anonymity said.
Qayyarah is a strategic town for both IS and Iraqi troops as it straddles the most important supply roads and networks in northern Iraq. Qayyarah links Hawija, a town 210km north of Baghdad, Shirqat town, 300km north of Baghdad and Abbasi town, 220km north of Baghdad.
The officer said that IS militants have taken advantage of the high position of the west side of Qayyarah to keep control over western Makhmour and many other towns in northern Baiji, a key city in Salahuddin province.
"If we liberate the villages in western Makhmour, Daesh will withdraw from Hawija, Abbasi and Shmees in northern Baiji," the officer, said.
“After this operation, the militants will be trapped between our troops in southern Mosul, and our troops in northern of Baiji. We plan to surround and isolate them in Hawija and Shirqat and this operation will make that easier," he said.
Additional reporting by Wladimir van Wilgenburg in Erbil.