By Joshua Partlow
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, February 24, 2008
MOSUL -- The mission was as dangerous as any that American troops could face in Mosul. An Iraqi informant had tipped them off about an enormous stockpile of homemade explosives and rocket-propelled grenades hidden along a city block within a few hundred yards of the place where 15 tons of explosives had blown up less than a month earlier, killing as many as 60 people.
As illumination flares drifted down over the desolate northern city, Apache attack helicopters circled the neighborhood and U.S. armored vehicles took their positions around the block. "If there's ever a time that you need to find God," said Sgt. James Leisinger, "now's the time."
But instead of storming the buildings themselves, standard procedure for them over the past five years, the American soldiers deferred on this night to their partners. Dozens of Iraqi soldiers jumped down to the pavement and searched 22 buildings as the Americans watched from their vehicles. No weapons were found, and the soldiers drove back unharmed.
"It cuts down on the danger to American forces," said Sgt. Christopher Sherman. "It's nice to have some people helping us kick in doors."
With just 2,000 American soldiers to patrol a city of 1.8 million people -- the Iraqi Sunni insurgency's most formidable urban stronghold -- the U.S. military strategy in Mosul relies to an unprecedented degree on the Iraqi security forces. U.S. military officials here say there will be nothing like the "surge" of thousands of American troops that helped ease the fighting in Baghdad and no major effort to search for insurgents block by block. Instead, they are betting that 18,200 Iraqi soldiers and police can shoulder the load against the kaleidoscope of insurgent groups fighting in the city.
"We see the Iraqi security forces, more and more, take the lead and take the fight to the enemy," said Maj. Adam Boyd, the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment's intelligence officer. "You do see a capability that we have not seen before."
In recent months, three Iraqi army battalions have returned to Mosul from deployments in Baghdad. The Interior Ministry has approved 2,000 additional police recruits for the city, and a new Iraqi operations command is coordinating the efforts of the Iraqi security forces.
But some Iraqi soldiers say they have neither the manpower nor the equipment to defeat the insurgency in Mosul, where violence has increased over the past six months. As of mid-February, there were 80 attacks a week, a quarter of which killed or wounded people.
Mosul's ethnic composition poses unique challenges for the Iraqi security forces. Sunni Arabs constitute four-fifths of the population, and there is little of the sectarian violence that has caused so much bloodshed elsewhere in the country. But many residents are openly hostile to the Iraqi army forces, whose leadership in Mosul is predominantly Kurdish, viewing them as a force for Kurdish encroachment. The insurgent violence here is focused almost entirely on Iraqi and U.S. security forces. Since the new American regiment arrived in Mosul in November, its troops have encountered hundreds of roadside bombs, according to U.S. military officials.
Iraqi army battalion commander Col. Dildar Jamil Dosky lives with his soldiers at a new outpost on the western bank of the Tigris River. His men have occupied the abandoned, bullet-scarred hulk of the Mosul Hotel, where shattered glass is scattered across the lobby and machine guns are mounted on the roof. American soldiers call this side of the city the "wild west," and Dosky's men endure regular sniper fire and rocket-propelled grenade, mortar and roadside bomb attacks. Dosky's 520 men have just 18 armored vehicles, and 11 of them are broken; some lie in a field below the hotel, half-cannibalized for spare parts.
The eight casualties the Iraqi battalion has suffered in its first 50 days in Mosul are more than it suffered in the whole of a seven-month tour in southwestern Baghdad last year. During that time, the soldiers, most of whom are Kurds, felt like impartial arbiters in the war between Sunnis and Shiites. In Baghdad last October, Dosky helped negotiate a pioneering neighborhood reconciliation pact between rival factions. His unit's welcome in Mosul has been much colder.
"Now they hate us more than the Americans," Dosky said. "They think we are American agents . . . that we are not officially army, that we are not serving our country, just Kurdistan."
The distrust among local residents limits the Iraqi soldiers' ability to collect intelligence about the insurgents they are fighting. The thousands of armed Sunnis who aligned with American soldiers and provided so much information about the group al-Qaeda in Iraq in other parts of the country have failed to materialize in Mosul. Dosky said taking control of the city would require at least two new Iraqi army divisions.
"The people, especially inside of Mosul, they don't like the new government," he said. "Very few of them have joined the army or police. They don't help us with information."
Many of the Kurdish soldiers don't speak Arabic, and some denigrate the Sunni Arab population in the city for supporting insurgents. "Kurd good. Arab no good," Sgt. Tayeeb Abdul Rahaman, an Iraqi soldier, said repeatedly in his limited English. "Anybody who doesn't like the army are terrorists," added Sgt. Major Mohammed Sharif.
The American soldiers who patrol here alongside the Iraqi soldiers describe their partners as welcome and often courageous allies whose professionalism and conduct have improved dramatically since the beginning of the war but who have a long way to go. The Iraqi soldiers still lack sufficient military discipline, the Americans said, clumping into exposed groups in the middle of dangerous streets, shooting too quickly and slapping around their detainees.
At another new garrison in western Mosul, known as Combat Outpost Rabi, American troops were not amused to find that Iraqi soldiers had stolen 14 cases of U.S. military rations and left the wrappers scattered on the ground. Nor did they appreciate taking machine-gun fire from the confused Iraqi sentry in the guard tower as they drove into the outpost one evening.
The worst transgression occurred Dec. 26, when a group of American soldiers were inside a building they had chosen for an outpost in northwest Mosul. Suddenly an Iraqi soldier raised his gun and shot five of the Americans at point-blank range. Two of them, Sgt. Benjamin Portell, 27, and Capt. Rowdy Inman, 38, were killed. The Iraqi soldier ran out of the room and tried to appear nonchalant by shaving, but he was quickly captured, said Maj. John Oliver, who was shot in the hand in the attack.
"It was a complete surprise. Nobody was expecting it," Oliver said. But he added that the attack "did not change the plan" to continue working with the Iraqi army.
The partnership between the two armies can also pose problems for the Iraqi soldiers, who are being pushed into dangerous missions without the firepower the U.S. military has at its disposal. On one treacherous stretch of road, known as Route Porsche, insurgents plant roadside bombs nearly every night, so the Iraqi soldiers have begun to maintain a checkpoint there.
A pattern of violence has become apparent at the checkpoint: The Iraqis come under attack about 15 minutes after the U.S. soldiers come by to check on them. On Feb. 16, insurgents fired two rocket-propelled grenades at the exposed soldiers after the U.S. patrol left. The next day, gunmen in four cars drove up to attack the checkpoint when the Americans were not in sight. The Iraqi soldiers, who carry AK-47 assault rifles but have no fortifications at the checkpoint, fought them off and shot three people. It got to the point where the Americans were doubling back to the checkpoint after a 15-minute interval to try to catch the insurgents.
"They don't like it when we come here," Lt. John Parlee, 23, a platoon leader, said of the Iraqi soldiers. "What happens is, when the bad guys see our trucks here, afterwards they attack the Iraqis."
But the checkpoint provides a needed service for the American soldiers.
"Until we set this TCP in here, they'd lay IEDs here every night," said Lt. Sion Edwards, another platoon leader, using the military abbreviations for traffic control point and improvised explosive device. "You couldn't really travel on this road."
The American commanders in Mosul said their approach takes into account the lessons of previous U.S. offensives, in which soldiers flooded a violent area only to find that their targets had fled or were indistinguishable from other civilians. The Americans are relying on the Iraqi army to develop intelligence that will lead to specific raids to capture individual insurgents.
"You can't just bring in the whole United States Army and go room to room of the entire city and then leave," said Maj. Thomas Feltey, an executive officer of a U.S. squadron in Mosul. "The bad guys will wait. We don't know who they are."