BA’ASHIQA, Iraq — The uncertain fate of this war-ravaged land finds a small echo in the uncertain fate of Sahar’s unresponsive 18-month-old son.
Fleeing the sadistic rule of Islamic State in nearby Mosul just as Iraqi and Kurdish forces here prepare for a final assault, Sahar and her extended family risk a perilous six-hour trek across the treacherous no-man’s land separating Iraq’s second-largest city from the lines manned by Kurdish peshmerga forces.
To keep her infant son from crying out and revealing the group’s position in the darkness, Sahar — who declined to give her last name — injects the boy with 5 milligrams of Valium dissolved in water, then spoon-feeds him antihistamine syrup during the journey in a desperate bid to keep him quiet.
But finally safe behind Kurdish lines, the baby remains eerily quiet, unresponsive and limp in his mother’s arms as a peshmerga medic tries to examine him. The panicked look on Sahar’s face says it all: In a desperate gamble to give her family a new life, she now can’t tell whether the baby is alive or dead.
The risk posed to hundreds of thousands of civilians like Sahar, facing life-and-death choices in a chaotic war zone, is just one of the many factors that have made the notion of the U.S.-backed campaign to retake Mosul such a quandary for the Obama administration. It’s been more than two years since Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, shocked the world, suddenly seizing the city and other large swaths of territory across northern and western Iraq and into Syria.
The imminent Mosul campaign also looms as a key battle in a global war on terror that will almost certainly be left unfinished when President Obama leaves office in just over four months — a security, intelligence, diplomatic and political challenge that will instantly dominate the agenda of whoever wins in November.
AUDIO: On the Edge of Mosul: A Walk Through No Man's Land
Behind the family as they fled, the cityscape of Mosul lit up regularly, as if someone was striking a giant match on the horizon: Islamic State fighters have been deploying booby traps and occasionally setting off explosives by mistake in frantic anticipation of a fight that has been years in the making.
In the coming days, Washington Times reporters will explore those challenges in depth, with dispatches from the Middle East, Europe and Washington, looking at how top officials and ordinary people are coping in the struggle against radical Islamic jihadi groups. And ground zero for the fight may be this dusty military camp in northern Iraq, not far from Iraq’s tense borders with Turkey, Syria and Iran.
Top administration officials at the Pentagon, the State Department and in the U.S. intelligence community have for more than a year said a major ground offensive will soon begin around Mosul, where an estimated 3,000 to 4,000 Islamic State fighters are hunkered down — nearly half of the terrorist group’s more than 10,000-man force stretching all the way to the group’s “capital” in Raqqa, Syria.
Despite steady gains by U.S.-backed Iraqi forces this year, the scene around the city is one largely defined by chaos among a fragile patchwork of loosely organized militias from various factions — including Turks, Kurds and Iranians — with little evidence of forceful leadership from Washington.
Roughly five years after the Obama administration pulled the last combat troops out of Iraq, the White House has spent recent months slowly reinserting nearly 1,000 U.S. troops, mostly “military advisers” accompanied by some heavy weaponry, to a series of secretive camps around Mosul. The hope is that the American forces can backstop what U.S. officials insist will eventually be a locally run and organized campaign to retake the city.
But the convoluted politics and disagreement over which group will ultimately control the city after it falls thus far have repeatedly delayed the looming Mosul operation — stalling momentum for the mission amid a glut of ethnic, sectarian and regional rivalries.
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Fissures within the tenuous coalition built by Iraq’s federal government in Baghdad, the Kurdistan Regional Government in Irbil and a revolving slate of U.S. commanders in the region have been widening for months, posing huge uncertainties over whether the campaign can succeed in what promises to be a grueling battle ahead.
Ethnic Iranian and Iraqi Kurds fighting side by side, backed by scattered pockets of American firepower and units of elite U.S. military advisers, are bolstering the ever-shifting front north and east of Mosul. Many on the ground say Turkish military units are discreetly present, occasionally lobbing mortar rounds into downtown Mosul without ever communicating with the varied Kurdish fighters in the area.
The situation is no less complex to Mosul’s south, where Iraqi government forces, working alongside predominantly Shiite Muslim militias backed by Iran, continue to press deeper into Islamic State lines under the cover of American warplanes and heavy artillery.
This is the coalition that U.S. officials say is so far successfully wresting control of the predominantly Sunni Muslim Anbar province from Islamic State. The eventual liberation of Mosul, they argue, will be the death blow for the terror group’s hopes of keeping a foothold within Iraq.
Operation Eagle Strike
U.S. Army Maj. Gen. Gary J. Volesky, the commander of the 101st Airborne Division, is the top American military official directly involved in the ground war against Islamic State.
Large maps line the walls of his office at Forward Operating Base Union III, a former Saddam Hussein-era palace in Baghdad’s Green Zone that’s now the headquarters for the U.S. military in Iraq.
Sheathed in plastic and marked with dozens of rectangles and arrows, the maps attempt to give a sense of military coherence to a fight that grows only more complex as the siege of Mosul draws near. At first glance, they show the analytical rigor and control that U.S. commanding officers have sought to impose on battlefields from Fallujah to Mosul over the past two years.
But on closer inspection, the maps tell a more confusing and tangled tale — of battles won and lost, territory seized and ceded against a guerrilla enemy whose fighters have been hardened by more than a decade of war.
Stare long enough, and the maps are discombobulating.
Gen. Volesky, a handful of other international partners and a cadre of Iraqi military commanders meet almost daily to hammer out a final battle plan for Mosul, attempting to meld all the competing interests, regional allegiances and ethnic cleavages into a cohesive fighting force.
“I’m not sure I can tell you what the real plan is going to be yet, but the plan is going to be their plan,” the general told The Times in an interview last month, emphasizing that whatever ultimately happens around Mosul during the weeks and months ahead won’t be something dictated by the Americans.
And yet, according to the maps on Gen. Volesky’s walls, U.S. advisers are already deeply involved on the ground with their Iraqi and Kurdish counterparts, and the American presence could well expand dramatically on short notice.
For the moment, the U.S. advisers are helping various factions construct small firebases and military camps encircling Mosul. The bases, in conjunction with a main U.S. military logistics hub in the tiny town of al Qayyara — roughly 40 miles south of Mosul — will serve as jumping-off points for 14 Iraqi Army brigades and thousands of peshmerga and militia fighters to advance on the city.
“It’s going to be hard. They have been there for two years,” Gen. Volesky said of the looming assault against Islamic State fighters, who’ve used their time carefully to dig in across Mosul, building up defenses that include everything from underground tunnels packed with explosives to house-borne improvised explosive devices.
Peshmerga forces on the ground told The Times that Iraqi Kurds trapped inside Mosul have relayed reports of Islamic State fighters hastily constructing a so-called “ring of fire” — a necklace of oil-filled trenches at strategic points of the city to be lit aflame once the ground assault begins.
After Mosul falls
But even winning the campaign brings new problems. Who will ultimately fill the power vacuum once Islamic State is finally driven from Mosul remains the biggest unanswered question.
Fears are mounting that an Islamic State defeat in the city will rekindle the devastating Sunni-vs.-Shia sectarian violence that tore Iraq apart at the seams during the worst days of the American occupation in the mid-2000s.
“You have to get all these stakeholders together and talk about how to clear Mosul, because how you clear Mosul starts to set conditions for post-Mosul,” said Gen. Volesky.
The general said he knows from firsthand experience that Iraqis — Sunni and Shia Arabs, Turkmen, Kurds and other ethnic minorities — can overcome centuries of internal divisions and sectarian conflict in the face of a common enemy. He was, after all, a brigade commander in Mosul during Operation Iraqi Freedom.
“This is my fifth rotation here, and I’ve seen these traditional friction points” between Iraqi and Kurdish forces, Gen. Volesky said. “But you have a common enemy here. ISIS is the common enemy.”
It’s a message Iraqi commanders also say they’re clinging to as they draft plans for Mosul and beyond. “The big challenge to us today, as Iraqis, is how to unite to defeat ISIS [after Mosul],” said Brig. Gen. Yahya Rasool, a top spokesman for the Iraqi Defense Ministry.
“Our duty as the Iraqi armed forces is to preserve the unity of [the country],” Gen. Rasool said in an interview in Baghdad. “I hope fighting ISIS has united us. Iraq is something that is higher than any religion or sect or anything else.”
But when asked how to keep the country from fracturing along ethnic, political and sectarian lines, the Iraqi general replied resignedly: “That is the challenge, but I believe the guarantee of security for all Iraqis will be the key.”
It’s a situation made all the more difficult as Islamic State, a Sunni Muslim extremist organization, has begun to shift back toward divisive insurgency tactics in the face of massive battlefield losses in conventional warfare.
Islamic State operatives have carried out a growing wave of suicide bombings in recent months, targeting Shiite populations in Baghdad and elsewhere, a clear echo of the efforts by the group’s predecessor, al Qaeda in Iraq, to highlight divisions and spark sectarian fighting in the mid-2000s.
The main boulevard in Baghdad’s Karrada neighborhood, a major Shiite enclave of the Iraqi capital, is filled with color. Shops are open and commerce is bustling.
But a little ways down the avenue, a fresh blast site appears. Hulking concrete shells of destroyed buildings and lumps of twisted iron rebar, charred beyond recognition, span almost an entire city block. Large plastic banners hang nearby, silently announcing the names and the faces of the nearly 200 people killed in the early-July attack carried out by Islamic State — the deadliest suicide bombing in Baghdad in years.
The Karrada blast site stands as a stark daily reminder of the threat many here believe will grow during the coming year.
“We are fighting a nonconventional enemy,” said Iraqi Gen. Rasool, who added that pockets in and around Baghdad controlled by Islamic State sleeper cells continue to wreak havoc inside the city, along with cells in Taji and Tamer districts north of the Iraqi capital.
Initially, U.S. and Iraqi military leaders thought the attacks were a desperation tactic employed by an enemy that knew it was losing. It was only after the Karrada attack that Washington and Baghdad acknowledged Islamic State had made a conscious shift in tactics.
More recently, according to Gen. Volesky, American commanders have begun focusing on how to better prepare Iraqi government security forces on counterterrorism and counterinsurgency operations.
“ISIS doesn’t disappear after Mosul is liberated,” he said. “You can’t lift your finger off this threat.”
It’s unclear whether the Iraqis will embrace the new focus being pushed by the Americans. For now, the partnership remains tense, and many in the Iraqi military seem far more eager to channel all resources toward conventional ground battles to retake Islamic State-held territory.
The Kurdish question
While the debate drags on, Kurdish fighters around Mosul say they are tired of waiting for the assault to begin.
“It is not our business to deal with the Iraqis,” Maj. Amir Musa said. “The [delay] is not from our side.”
Ever since American warplanes helped the peshmerga forces dig in and halt the Islamic State advance in early 2015, the Kurdish lines have remained static on the edge of Mosul, while Iraqi military and Iran-backed militia forces have been given time to chip away at Islamic State’s southern flanks outside the city.
Watching the Iraqi government and Iran-backed troops slowly advance as they hunker down has spurred growing resentment and distrust among Kurdish commanders, who fear they’re being left on the sidelines by Baghdad, Washington and Tehran.
“[We] are tired of waiting,” said Maj. Gen. Hamid Afandi, the commander of all peshmerga forces along the Kurdish-controlled Bashiq Line — a six-mile stretch of firebases representing the deepest Kurdish position into Islamic State territory on Mosul’s northern edge.
“We are not satisfied by [Iraqi forces] and they are not satisfied by us,” he said during an interview at his headquarters near the front.
For their part, Iraqi military officials claim peshmerga forces have exploited the war against Islamic State to expand their territory across northern Iraq — an expansion that Baghdad says would violate the boundaries of the semi-autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) territory outlined in the Iraqi constitution.
U.S. officials acknowledge the tension, but they also reject Kurdish claims that the Americans are colluding with Baghdad to keep the Kurds contained and prevent a possible Kurdish independent state being carved out of Iraq.
Gen. Volesky told The Times that the Mosul battle plan has not been driven by political concerns.
But with Irbil, the KRG capital, now at its perhaps strongest point politically since the 1991 Gulf War in Iraq, many believe an independent Iraqi Kurdistan will finally rise to the fore once Mosul is wrested away from Islamic State.
For now, most Kurds refuse to be pinned down on the future. When asked whether the endgame in Mosul would set up a chance at Kurdish independence, Gen. Afandi said only that he and other peshmerga commanders “will defend our land [and] if anyone wants to take it from us, we will fight.”
A young survivor
The U.N. predicts 1 million to 2 million refugees will flood out of Mosul once the U.S.-backed siege begins. More than 100,000 have already escaped the city and surrounding Islamic State-held areas, crossing Kurdish territory in batches of 500 to 1,000 a day.
“We are not ready for this; we need help,” said Peshmerga Maj. Amir Musa Naamad, the officer in charge of the firebase where Sahar’s family crossed on a recent night. He told The Times that, since May, more than 1,500 refugees have come through the tiny base overlooking the Mosul neighborhood of al-Faisaliah.
For Sahar, at least, the story has a happy — if still-evolving — ending.
As the terrified mother covers her mouth with her hand, the boy’s eyes suddenly flutter beneath the flash of the Kurdish medic’s penlight.
The boy is past the worst and would likely sleep for the next few days, the medic told Sahar, as her family piled into a convoy of pickup trucks bound for the main refugee camp in nearby Irbil.
Sahar, her son and the rest of her family had escaped the carnage of Mosul and the clutches of Islamic State. Whether Iraq and its people can survive the Mosul offensive and those to come remains to be seen.