Parts of the Iraqi Army’s 15th division, a unit of around 1,000 soldiers, have moved into Iraqi Kurdistan in recent days, according to a senior U.S. military official.
Army Col. Steve Warren, the Baghdad-based spokesman for the U.S.-led coalition in Iraq, confirmed to reporters that the unit’s headquarters element had arrived at the Kurdish frontline position in Mahkmour. The move was first reported late last week by the AFP.
The unit, Warren said, “will kind of begin the process of generating the combat power that’s necessary to…progress this campaign with an eventual goal of Mosul.”
Warren added that the retaking of Mosul—an Iraqi city that fell to the Islamic State in June 2014—is still a long way off. The arrival of the Iraqi units in Mahkmour, a small town roughly 65 miles southeast of Mosul, is but a small part of the campaign to expel the Islamic State from the country. Currently, Iraqi units are finishing clearing the city of Ramadi in Anbar province to the south and it is unclear where they will focus their efforts next. The city of Fallujah and its surrounding towns are still held by the extremist group, while there is international pressure to clear out Mosul, one of the Islamic State’s largest strongholds.
Mahkmour is a Kurdish base and is home to a small contingent of U.S. advisers who help coordinate airstrikes and train Kurdish units there. It is one of the larger bases that is relatively close to Mosul and is just one part of a network of outposts that litter northern Iraq and help form a defensive line along the Tigris and Great Zab rivers.
Parts of the 15th division have already received some U.S. training, though it is unclear if they will receive any more prior to heading back into combat.
U.S. and international troops, including the Germans, are scattered throughout northern Iraq and are currently helping train Kurdish fighters, known as peshmerga, in the basics of combat and urban warfare with the eventual hopes that they will use their newfound knowledge to help retake Mosul.
Canadian troops, including special operations forces, are also in the area, and according to Kurdish fighters, have been extremely active around Mosul. Recently, Canada announced it was halting airstrikes in the region, and instead would triple the number of their advisers on ground to assist in the fight against the Islamic State.
Kurdish officials have been saying for weeks that they are ready to retake the city as long as they are backed by the United States, while Iraqi Defense Minister Khaled al-Obaidi recently told Reuters that the Iraqis would be ready to retake the city in the first half of this year.
On the front, Kurdish troops are skeptical of their Iraqi counterparts’ ability to commit to the battle any time soon. In a recent interview near Mosul, Maj. Gen. Sirwan Barzani said that the 15,000 troops under his command are ready for the battle but that he has no real expectations for the Iraqis. Barzani pointed out that the campaign to retake the city has been continuously pushed back because Iraqi units have been bogged down fighting in places like Ramadi and Baiji.