The Iraqi army’s operation to retake Mosul from the Islamic State (ISIS/ISIL) has stalled because of low morale among the force and heavy resistance, reports USA Today.
Some Iraqi service members have been accused of deserting the fight. The Iraqi army — backed by the United States, the Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga forces, and some Shiite militias, many of which are backed by Iran — launched an operation to seize back Mosul last Thursday, where two million people lived before the Islamic State invasion.
“Last Thursday’s mission was supposed to be a simple operation to harden untested Iraqi army soldiers: clear villages held by Islamic State fighters before crossing the Tigris River to retake the larger town of Qayyara, home to an airfield and oil fields,” notes USA Today. “Their longer-term goal is to clear the way for a future push to reclaim the extremist group’s stronghold of Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city.”
“Instead, it proved to be a slog because of heavy rains, tougher-than-expected resistance from the militants and reports of the low morale that has dogged the Iraqi military ever since the Islamic State swept into Iraq in 2014,” it adds. “The stalled operation underscored just how difficult it will be to dislodge the militants from Mosul.”
Despite the U.S.-led coalition assurances that the Mosul operation is unfolding according to plan, Kurdish fighters have criticized the ability of their Iraqi counterparts to liberate Mosul.
“After the first day, the Iraqi army was unable to take a single meter of (Islamic State) territory successfully,” Kurdish Col. Mahdi Younis said at an Iraqi outpost, 70 miles south of Mosul. “No one should expect the least success from the Iraqi army. They have no will to fight.”
Younis highlighted a pile of cellphones taken from Iraqi “deserters” at a checkpoint.
In the hallway of the outpost, 20 Iraqi men in civilian clothes were crouched against a wall.
“These are the lions which escaped,” reportedly joked Kurdish fighter Mohamed Jasem.
Criticism of the Iraqi army is premature, argue U.S.-led coalition officials.
“We believe that the Iraqis have performed according to the plan that they’ve set,” said U.S. Col. Steve Warren, a top spokesman for the coalition. “The Iraqi army, we believe, is improving every day.”
Echoing Col. Warren, Michael Knights, an expert on the Iraqi military at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, agreed, saying the Iraqi army’s unfavorable start was not unprecedented.
“It is worth remembering that the Peshmerga [Kurdish fighters] were completely driven out of this area in the late winter of last year,” noted Knights. “Now the Iraqi army is facing the same challenges trying to push forward into the same terrain.”
The Iraqi army “had some tough fighting,” he added. “Give it some time for these units to gain their balance.”
Backed by U.S.-led coalition air support, as well as artillery fire by U.S. Marines and logistical assistance from the Kurds, the Iraqi army and Sunni tribal fighters were able to retake three villages controlled by ISIS when the operation began Thursday.
“By Saturday, the Iraqi soldiers were bogged down outside the strategic hilltop village of Nassrash, where suicide bombers killed at least seven soldiers,” reports USA Today. “The next day, rain turned the area’s dirt roads into quagmires and cloud cover prevented coalition jets from providing effective support.”
Many Sunni Arab villagers displaced by the fighting have blamed the mostly Shiite Iraqi army for their misfortunes.