Lessons Learned IN MOSUL
Iraqi commanders reveal how they succeeded in urban warfare against Daesh terrorists
UNIPATH STAFF | PHOTOS BY iraqi Counter-Terrorism Service
As the second largest Iraqi city, Mosul is home to some of the world’s most ancient sites. Iraqis refer to it as the city of two springs for its beautiful green foliage, fertile soil and unique climate. The city sleeps on the banks of the eternal Tigris River, which divides the city into east and west sides. Because Mosul has always been prosperous, it has been a common target for external invasions and attacks throughout history. Still, its recent destruction at the hands of Daesh far exceeded all previous catastrophes: Daesh burned churches and mosques, destroyed ancient sites and purged indigenous residents in a despicable attempt to eradicate Mosul’s identity.
The battle to liberate Mosul has a special meaning for Iraqis. It will restore dignity to their Armed Forces and sovereignty to their nation, while — most importantly — eliminating the seat of Daesh’s self-declared caliphate. The major challenge of this battle is that approximately 2 million citizens remain trapped inside the city. Furthermore, Iraqi Soldiers aim to protect the city’s infrastructure and historic sites despite Daesh’s attempts to destroy them. These challenges have complicated the battle for Mosul, forcing Soldiers to fight in close quarters — sometimes fighting from room to room within houses. Counter-Terrorism Service (CTS) troops have played a significant role in this epic battle. Unipath spoke with Staff Gen. Talib Shaghati Alkenani, the commander of CTS, as well as a group of senior CTS leaders to learn more about this historic battle. Gen. Alkenani was our first stop.
Unipath: In a speech before sending CTS forces into Mosul, you asked them to treat civilians with respect. You said they should not fire a shot before positively identifying a target. What was the significance of this advice?
Gen. Alkenani: CTS fighters are distinguished by their high-level training, commitment to the rules of engagement and control of the battlespace. Therefore, I find it important to advise CTS fighters to use their best judgment. They must respect civilians because these are our countrymen who have found themselves under the rule of terror. By following this advice, CTS troops have become a source of pride for Mosul residents. Social media and satellite TV repeatedly air eyewitness interviews praising CTS’ professionalism and respectful treatment of civilians.
Unipath: What is your assessment of CTS performance in Mosul liberation operations?
Gen. Alkenani: I am very proud of the progress CTS forces have made in this honorable battle. They truly set an example of what it means to be a noble fighter, wielding tremendous capabilities yet treating civilians humanely. Mosul residents speak constantly about their respect for the CTS troops in their neighborhoods, telling reporters stories of the CTS sharing food with hungry children. The media has followed these fighters as they traveled and manned strategic areas or engaged in intense combat. In all these scenarios, CTS fighters wore sharp, crisp uniforms and full combat gear, indicating a high level of professionalism. In addition, they hit their targets precisely, aiming to avoid collateral damage.
Unipath: The density of people and buildings in east Mosul made combat uniquely challenging for CTS forces. How did you defeat Daesh there with minimum damage to local infrastructure?
Gen. Alkenani: Coalition forces have provided CTS with specialized training in urban warfare. In addition, CTS used a selection process for fighters in accordance with international special forces standards. We hire only qualified individuals; this has helped us adhere to rules of engagement and avoid excessive use of heavy weapons in the city. We prohibit our Soldiers from raising machine guns above their heads or shooting indiscriminately.
Unipath: How did you secure peace and stability in east Mosul so quickly?
Gen. Alkenani: We learned from our experience in the Baghdad area that Daesh employs sleeper cells to destabilize recently liberated areas by conducting suicide attacks and placing improvised explosive devices (IEDs) on roadsides. The terrorists know it is difficult to identify these cells, which makes it nearly impossible for security forces to guarantee residents’ safety. As a result, the populace loses confidence in their security forces.
For that reason, we work to pre-empt terror attacks in newly liberated areas. Working closely with our partners in the coalition forces, we came up with the idea of establishing a command and control center in east Mosul that has proven highly successful. The purpose of these headquarters is to oversee all security forces operations and the provision of essential services. Each government and security entity operating in east Mosul has representatives in this office, which prevents terrorists from impersonating security forces to carry out horrific attacks. Thanks to the high level of coordination among agencies, we have managed to detain many terrorists and facilitate a smooth transition from east to west Mosul. When CTS forces advanced to the western half of the city, the transition was seamless and did not create a power vacuum in east Mosul.
Unipath: Some contemptible voices accuse coalition forces of aiding Daesh. What is your response to those accusations?
Gen. Alkenani: This unbalanced narrative is a clear attempt to shake Iraqis’ trust in their friends in the coalition. Coalition forces came to Iraq at the request of our government, and they are committed to supporting Iraq as indicated in the security agreements signed by our nations. Accusations like the one you mention are nothing more than cheap rumors peddled by regional entities that do not wish to see Iraq as a strong and sovereign nation, and thus plant seeds of doubt about our achievements on the ground. Coalition warplanes have dropped bombs and rockets to destroy Daesh positions. We in the CTS greatly appreciate our partners’ huge and unique role in supporting our forces’ efforts to liberate cities from Daesh.
Unipath: Can you tell us about the coalition forces’ role in the battle for Mosul?
Gen. Alkenani: They have played a very significant role in providing round-the-clock air support to find and destroy Daesh positions and supply lines. In addition, their reconnaissance and intelligence support has detected enemy movement, specifically Daesh’s attempts to herd civilians into abandoned homes and use them as human shields. Finally, the coalition has provided military advisors who have worked diligently to improve our fighters’ capabilities and the speed of communication between downrange forces and coalition forces. In particular, these advisors helped us to defeat the enemy’s unmanned aircraft system.
Unipath: What role will CTS forces play after the complete liberation of Mosul?
Gen. Alkenani: Our forces gain more experience every day, and our capability improves tremendously. We will take on a larger role in tracking and capturing terrorists and organized criminals. CTS was founded as an unconventional force with a specific mission; however, the vicious Daesh attack on our homeland has left us no choice but to change tactics to defend the nation. Other countries in the region have closely monitored our progress and learned from our model. It is our vision to be a strategic deterrent force that protects national security.
Our next guest is Lt. Gen. Abd al-Wahab al-Saidi, who commanded the battle for west Mosul.
Unipath: As the commander of the battle for west Mosul, what are your main priorities?
Lt. Gen. al-Saidi: As directed by the commander in chief, our highest priority is protecting civilian lives, property and infrastructure.
Unipath: How do you compare the battles for east and west Mosul?
Lt. Gen. al-Saidi: There is big difference in the terrain, demographics and size of the battlespace. The people in east Mosul are very different from those in west Mosul. Even Daesh fighters in east Mosul are different from those in the west. West Mosul contains a much higher percentage of foreign fighters. Daesh deployed local fighters to the front line in east Mosul, since they lack the morale and combat experience of foreign fighters.
For that reason, these local fighters couldn’t resist our advance in east Mosul. We caught them by surprise by entering the city sooner than they anticipated, and it was easy to take the area once we overcame their suicide vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices (SVBIEDs). With these devices, they hoped to slow us down and allow their foreign fighters and leadership to cross the river to west Mosul. But with their families securely entrenched in west Mosul, foreign fighters did not depend on the front line forces in east Mosul. This allowed us to gain ground quickly in that part of the city.
Unipath: Do you mean that Daesh considered the west Mosul battle more decisive?
Lt. Gen. al-Saidi: Of course, they also bragged about the battle for east Mosul at first. I think their leadership is trying to mislead them to believe that they have a plan and will win. We witnessed the same scenario in Fallujah. They tried to keep their forces cohesive in east Mosul, but after their first and second lines of defense collapsed, and after the battle of al-Khouser River, they gave up and began to focus on west Mosul.
Unipath: The media reported that the second CTS division rescued 53 trapped citizens from a collapsed home after Daesh detonated a vehicle-borne improvised explosive device (VBIED) nearby. Can you tell us about this incident?
Lt. Gen. al-Saidi: There have been many missions to rescue trapped citizens from wreckage, but this was a unique case because the survivors told us the story of how Daesh forced them into the house in the al-Samoud neighborhood before detonating the VBIED. Coalition forces reported the incident to a CTS field commander on March 7, 2017. After confirming the location of the attack with help from our reconnaissance team, we secured the area and conducted the rescue mission at first light on March 8.
This humanitarian rescue was the result of partnership and teamwork. The terrorists’ plan was to detonate the house and accuse us of killing the civilians. Instead, their despicable plan was uncovered as innocent civilians told us how Daesh had forced them to gather inside the house as snipers fired from its rooftop and detonated the nearby VBIED. This anecdote illustrates Daesh’s ruthlessness and viciousness.
Unipath: Why would Daesh herd the city’s residents into harm’s way?
Lt. Gen. al-Saidi: We first observed this behavior in west Mosul; they had never done this before. On the run and at risk of losing everything, Daesh aims to destroy Mosul’s infrastructure and kill as many people as possible before succumbing to our forces. We’ve conducted numerous missions to rescue civilians in harm’s way. In one case, we conducted a night mission to save more than 300 citizens inside a house containing massive amounts of explosive material.
Unipath: What made the battle for Mosul different from the battles for Fallujah and Bayji?
Lt. Gen. al-Saidi: Of course, every battle has its own unique elements. The battle for Bayji was difficult, because it took place in the strategically important, highly connected area between Mosul, Salah al-Din, Ramadi and Hawija. The battle for Fallujah, meanwhile, influenced Daesh morale because of the city’s symbolic value as the seat of numerous battles and historical events.
The battle for Mosul was different for several reasons. The most important is that its area and population size are much larger than Bayji and Fallujah. Mosul had more than 1.8 million citizens, while Fallujah had just 120,000. For that reason, Mosul is also considered the seat of the so-called caliphate, so the liberation of Mosul marks the fall of the “caliphate.”
Unipath: Daesh used tactics like car bombs to impede liberation forces. How did you overcome these challenges?
Lt. Gen. al-Saidi: When fighting in a city, we measure the battle in meters. That is, we could fight all day to move only 50 meters forward. But such a small gain could lead to the liberation of a whole neighborhood, allowing us subsequently to advance a full mile without any obstacles.
In coordination with our partners in the international coalition, we focus on the details of the area. After we define the area to which we hope to advance, we strike predetermined targets to cut off the main road Daesh uses for SVBIED attacks. Coalition aircraft fire rockets at key crossroads to deny car bombs access. This allows us to focus on specific objectives without being distracted by side goals. In addition, it gives coalition aircraft and the Iraqi Air Force a greater chance of neutralizing VBIEDs.
Unipath: Describe the role of the international coalition in the battle to liberate Mosul.
Lt. Gen. al-Saidi: The coalition has played a remarkable role. It has extended beyond air support to include logistical support, the provision of special engineering equipment, and reconnaissance and intelligence. With help from the coalition, we impeded enemy movement and destroyed their defensive positions. By conducting precision airstrikes against bomb factories and arms caches, the coalition helped liberate the city in record time with minimal civilian casualties. No matter the battle or weather conditions, the coalition never ceased its support. I’d like to thank these Soldiers, officers and commanders for their support in Iraq’s fight against terrorism.
Our last stop was the front line in west Mosul, where Staff Brig. Gen. Haider Fadhil Arzouqi and Col. Arkan Jalal spoke to Unipath about their Soldiers’ heroism and sacrifice.
Unipath: Can you talk about how Soldiers’ fighting capabilities developed during the battle for Mosul?
Brig. Gen. Haider: Our counterterrorism forces have gained substantial expertise and learned new fighting techniques; they are distinguished by their readiness for fast-paced battles. We have experienced unconventional fighting and have fought from room to room inside populated houses. In those situations, any mistake could lead to disaster, yet we managed to successfully distinguish terrorists from civilians and earn the trust and confidence of our people.
Unipath: What has been the role of coalition forces in this development?
Col. Arkan: Without a doubt, coalition forces played a very important role, especially in our expansion of operations. Our friends in the coalition contributed hugely to training our units in the use of heavy artillery and anti-armor weapons, since our forces had not used these weapons in the recent past.
Unipath: Have you noticed changes in Daesh tactics in Mosul?
Brig. Gen. Haider: In west Mosul, Daesh uses reconnaissance “quadcopters” to direct car bombs toward main roads and command centers. At first, the enemy’s use of aircraft was a challenge for our forces, but with the support and cooperation of our partners in the coalition, we overcame these obstacles.
Col. Arkan: Daesh did not change tactics much; it has consistently employed guerrilla tactics common among insurgent groups. What was different in Mosul, however, was the density of the population and buildings. That creates challenges relating to the rules of engagement and adherence to international treaties to protect civilians. I want to assure you, however, that we have full control over the battlespace and are committed to rules to protect our people.
Unipath: How did you help citizens leave the city safely before the battle?
Col. Arkan: We control the flow of internally displaced people [IDPs], and our plan was to encourage citizens to remain in their homes. We used loudspeakers and distributed publications to reassure them of their safety. In addition, we secured food for them and provided health clinics and fuel for local generators to provide electricity. We have pushed ourselves to provide for our citizens’ needs, which has minimized displacement. Many families have managed to remain in their homes, while for others we were able to secure safe passage from Daesh’s clutches.
Brig. Gen. Haider: We launched attacks from two directions: The 2nd Special Operations Forces controlled the eastern road, while the 1st and 3rd Special Operations Forces controlled the western road. These attacks achieved their goals in Ghazlani Camp, Wadi Hajar, Tel al-Rayyan and the al-Ma’moun neighborhood, but as we penetrated the city’s older neighborhoods, our progress slowed. There, we were faced with waves of IDPs, whom Daesh used as cover for suicide bombers targeting our units. At the same time, Daesh snipers attacked civilians attempting to flee.
Our operations were important primarily from a humanitarian perspective, but also from an operational perspective. Our top priority was securing safe passage and humanitarian relief for civilians trapped in the city, and we worked hard to protect civilians from suicide bombers attempting to blend among them.
Herein lay the difficulty of our mission: We had to balance the safety of civilians with the risk that Daesh fighters might disguise themselves as IDPs to conduct sniper or suicide bomb attacks. Our work required constant vigilance: We watched everyone who arrived and communicated with each other about suspicious movements. Our troops were totally committed to the rules of engagement, especially pursuing suicide bombers who hid among civilians. In fact, our men managed to kill many of these terrorists before they could blow themselves up near civilians.
Unipath: You’ve lauded Gen. Talib Shaghati Alkenani, the head of CTS, for his role in building Iraq’s counterterrorism capacity. Can you tell us more about the impact he has had?
Col. Arkan: Gen. Alkenani is considered the spiritual father of Iraq’s counterterrorism forces. CTS’ advanced capabilities and impressive performance fully reflect his vision. Our secret is not in the quality of our training or equipment, but rather in the cohesion and morale of our units, which is the work of Gen. Alkenani. This is what history will record about this great leader. History will recognize the strength of this strategic force and the great achievements of Gen. Alkenani, which have become a source of pride and glory for all Iraqis.
Brig. Gen. Haider: If Gen. Alkenani had not been our leader, CTS simply would not exist. I consider him a role model of leadership. He loves our troops as though they are his sons, which is a feeling we share. The strength, steadfastness and professionalism of our counterterrorism forces were derived from the personality of Gen. Alkenani.
Unipath: What lessons did the Special Operations Forces learn that could benefit the rest of Iraq’s Armed Forces?
Brig. Gen. Haider: By fighting battles to deter criminal gangs, these brave knights have taught the region an important lesson about the need to form unconventional forces to ensure security and stability. When these Soldiers boldly killed terrorists at Baghdad’s Church of Our Lady of Deliverance in 2010, they astonished the world with their precision and skill. At the same time, we are very proud of our Soldiers’ humanitarian approach to such unconventional situations. They have dealt respectfully and kindly with displaced populations in liberated areas, as evidenced by numerous IDPs’ stories applauding counterterrorism forces. The most important lesson we have learned is about the need to confront terrorism by refuting its lies and hypocrisy online via social media.
Col. Arkan: The most important lesson we learned was the need to sustain momentum during combat. Confronting the criminal tactics of this enemy requires a special level of determination. Without the high morale we gained from basic training, we would be unable to defeat Daesh. It is through their indomitable fighting spirit that our Soldiers have managed to win decisively. Daesh tried to impede our progress with suicide bombers — and to be sure, we lost several martyrs to these attacks — but that only increased our determination to defeat these terror gangs. By exposing the crimes of terrorism, we have enabled the armies of the region to confront extremism themselves by taking advantage of our experience.
The other key lesson we’ve learned was about dealing with civilians in combat zones. There is no other force in the world as well trained to carry out large-scale military operations against an enemy in an urban environment. Defeating enemies holed up inside cities — without simultaneously destroying the city itself — is a process comparable to performing complicated eye surgery.