ABOARD A MILITARY AIRCRAFT, April 5, 2017 — Iraqi and coalition forces will learn from the civilian casualty incident of March 17 and continue to support Iraqi forces taking the fight to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria in Mosul, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said today.
Marine Corps Gen. Joe Dunford spoke to reporters enduring the return leg of his trip to Iraq. The general makes periodic trips to the region to chart progress in the fight against ISIS.
Dunford said Iraqi troops – especially the elite troops of the counterterrorism service – have made tremendous progress in the fight against ISIS in western Mosul. The fight against the terror group in that section of the city is different from the one that occurred when Iraqi forces liberated eastern Mosul, he noted. The fact that the Iraqi security forces are adapting their tactics against the enemy in the western part of the city shows how much they have developed, Dunford said.
In East Mosul, the city is more open, with wider streets, he explained. The Iraqi forces could use vehicles to their advantage, and more open areas made surveillance and targeting easier.
“West Mosul is much more crowded,” Dunford said. “It appears that ISIS is herding civilians into buildings and so forth and using them as human shields. Knowing that, Iraqis are looking at making modifications in current operations to mitigate the risk of civilian casualties and allow them to continue to make progress against ISIS.”
Complex Urban Terrain
The Iraqis have done a good job describing the complex urban terrain of West Mosul — the older part of the city, with very narrow streets and fewer open areas, the chairman said. Iraqi officials said roughly 600,000 people live in that portion of the city.
Iraqi forces are operating in the narrow streets on foot. Houses and commercial buildings are laced with improvised explosive devices, and ISIS has built vehicle-borne explosive devices. The terror group also is modifying store-bought drones to threaten Iraqi security forces.
But the Iraqi forces are adapting – something they could not have done a year ago, Dunford said. They are working closely with coalition forces that are providing advice and assistance and providing critical aviation and ground fires, he added.
In December 2015, Iraqi forces – with coalition support – aimed at driving ISIS from Ramadi in Iraq’s Anbar province. There was an “inability for us to coordinate deliver of supporting arms because of the lack of coordination with the Iraqis,” Dunford said. “What we couldn’t do during that period of time was ensure clearance of fires,” he told reporters. “We had aviation. They were on the ground.”
Iraqi and coalition forces made adjustments, and Iraqi security forces drove ISIS from Ramadi. They then drove ISIS from Fallujah, and then Beiji. With each offensive, the coordination between the Iraqi forces and the coalition got better, Dunford said, pointing out the close partnership in operations that set the conditions for the liberation of Mosul.
Aiding the effort was the decision by Army Lt. Gen. Stephen J. Townsend, the commander of Operation Inherent Resolve, to push coalition advisors out to units to improve delivery of both aviation and surface fires, Dunford said.
Still, he said, neither the Iraqis nor the coalition is complacent, and all recognize that the end of fighting in Mosul will not be the end of the campaign against ISIS. “There is a lot of fighting left to go – Hawija, Tal Afar, Euphrates River valley,” he said.
Protecting civilians is a concern to the Iraqi forces, Dunford said, and it was a focus of the discussions he had with Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi, President of Iraqi Kurdistan Masoud Barzani and Townsend. All discussed better ways to protect civilians in the affected areas and to ensure the United Nations has camps for those who wish to leave where they can be cared for.
Dunford characterized Townsend as being optimistic about the situation in Iraq and the performance of the Iraqis, as well as about the cooperation between the Iraqis and the Kurdish peshmerga forces, which he said was “a subject of great concern eight or nine months ago.”
Dunford said the American troops he met on the trip were pumped up. “They are doing what they came into the Army to do,” he said. U.S. morale is high because they see the Iraqis succeeding and they see success in the strategy, he said. Everywhere he went, he added, “the focus was good and how the Iraqis were doing was all positive.”