It took 36 days of fierce fighting to take the Iraqi city of Fallujah from so-called Islamic State (ISIS) in June. By the end of August, Iraqi armed forces were able to overrun Qayara in just 48 hours. In 2014, the jihadist militant group swept through the country, taking a quarter of its territory, scattering Iraqi troops before it. Two years on, ISIS is in retreat and has given up 40% of the areas it once controlled: the only important city it now holds is Mosul.
“By the end of this year there will be fighting in Mosul, that’s for sure,” says the Spanish lieutenant colonel in charge of his country’s special operations unit in Iraq.
It remains to be seen if the patchwork Iraqi armed forces, sown together from tribal clans, can hold out
“We are ready to liberate Mosul. The how, when and who is a decision for the politicians,” says Colonel Mustafa, the Iraqi joint commander of the Emergency Response Division (ERD) being trained by Spanish commandos.
The optimism after the successful turnaround in Iraq is due largely to Operation Inherent Resolve, a coalition of more than 40 countries led by the United States focused on defeating the so-called caliphate ISIS has set up in Iraq and Syria, in which Spain’s role is limited to training Iraqi forces.
Managing the coalition requires diplomacy on the part of General Steven J. Townsend, who leads Operation Inherent Resolve out of Kuwait. The sacking of the Iraqi defense minister earlier this month left him with no government interlocutor, while Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Al Abadi, whose position is far from secure, has banned foreign troops from traveling by road so that the population they have supposedly come to protect does not see them, meaning overseas military can only move around by helicopter at night. This doesn’t impede the United States, but it means that junior partners such as Spain have to get permission before they can do anything.
The lack of coordination and rampant corruption in Iraq constantly creates problems: a few days ago, a Spanish Hercules transport plane was held up at Baghdad airport because the head of air traffic control would not authorize the aircraft to move the 100 meters that separated it from the US terminal. “Iraq was chaotic without ISIS, but with ISIS in the mix, I can’t begin to tell you what it’s like here,” says the Spanish commander.
The head of the Spanish green beret contingent says ISIS is defeated militarily
The training methods used by the 300 Spanish soldiers teaching their Iraqi counterparts are basic. “In Spain, training a soldier can take up to three years, but here we have to compact that into a few weeks. It’s impossible to prepare them for everything contingency, so we limit training to the specific situations they will face,” says Colonel Pedro Vázquez de Prada, in charge of the Besmayah base, where the Spanish contingent is located. This is the only such base not under direct US command, and the Spanish soldiers here have trained around a third of the 25,000 Iraqi troops involved in Operation Inherent Resolve. For the moment, those Spanish forces are teaching Iraqi soldiers how to detect improvised explosive devices, known as IEDs, but not how to dismantle them. “If they can’t explode them, then they just mark their location,” says Colonel Vázquez de Prada.
The Iraqi government is in a hurry and has cut back training time. The first soldiers the Spanish forces worked with were given up to three months training at Besmayah, a small town around 40 kilometers east of Baghdad. The most recent recruits are given one month.
A team of Spanish green berets has recently been stationed at a base near Mosul to train Iraqi commando units in situ. The idea is to use them in the upcoming battle to take the city.
General Sabah Yones, head of Iraq’s 36th Cavalry Brigade, and who is now being trained by the Spanish forces, hopes his men will be the first to go into Mosul. But he also complains that he doesn’t have enough resources, due to government cutbacks. He is a Sunni, and the war against ISIS has brought long-standing rivalries between Iraq’s Sunni and Shiite communities to the fore, along with differences within Shiites themselves, as well with the Kurds. Asked his opinion about the Kurdish Peshmerga forces, he replies: “We’re fighting together against ISIS, but that’s all I will say.”
The optimism in Iraq is due to the US-led Operation Inherent Resolve, a coalition of more than 40 countries
“ISIS is defeated militarily,” says the head of the Spanish green beret contingent, known to his men as “Indio,” adding that Mosul will fall sooner or later.
General John E. Novalis, second-in-command of the coalition, is more cautious. “We’re beating them, but we haven’t beaten them yet. They have lost the ability to hold onto territory they have conquered, but the jihadists that are still in Mosul [estimated at around 3,000] aren’t going to disappear, they’ll simply go somewhere else,” he warns.
Baghdad is presumably one likely destination: there are now around half-a-dozen attacks in the capital every day, few of which make the international news.
It remains to be seen if the patchwork Iraqi armed forces, sown together from a ragbag of ethnic groups, religions and tribal clans, can hold out against the tensions of the post war reconstruction.
“Nobody knows what is going to happen after the different groups no longer have a common enemy,” warns Indio. The war is won, the risk now is losing the peace, again.
English version by Nick Lyne.