In Mosul, Iraqi units overshadow Americans
One after another, the vehicles streamed past into central Mosul - beige armored vehicles bristling with weapons and antennae, followed by trucks packed with troops. The midnight push was an unusually large one, totaling more than forty vehicles and over a battalion of infantry, all pushing into the centuries-old Zanjili neighborhood, toward a location suspected of being a base for suicide car bombs.
The long column was not American, though. It was a force massed and led on the spur of the moment by Major General Muhammad Sabri Latif, the commander of the 3rd Iraqi National Police Division. Although the vehicles of American advisors were sprinkled throughout the column, and a pair of hulking US Abrams tanks pulled security at a major intersection, the arrival of the long stream of armored vehicles and pickup trucks filled with soldier-policemen in blue camouflage took the American troop commander in the area, Captain Justin Harper, who had planned on a small raid, by surprise.
"It turned into a circus," said Harper, whose Killer Troop, 3rd "Thunder" Squadron, 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment, is responsible for the part of western Mosul that the squadron headquarters considers most problematic. "But it's probably what the general intended. He has this huge security detail, and when he takes it out like that, and directs the placement of individual vehicles, it may be frustrating to us, but it shows that he's in charge."
The "surge" orchestrated by Generals David Petraeus and Raymond Odierno did not touch Mosul last year, nor did the famous Sahwa, or awakening movement. But this city, the capital of the northern Ninewa province, has been the center of another surge this year - a surge of Iraqi combat forces to lock down one of the last strongholds of the Sunni insurgency in Iraq.
Since Thunder Squadron arrived here last December, the number of Iraqi combat units in its area of Mosul has increased from just a few battalions to fourteen. The distinctive blue camouflage uniforms of the National Police, once a rare sight outside Baghdad, are now commonplace here.
For American troops, Mosul remains the most dangerous city in Iraq, by a good margin. But the difference in the security situation here before and after the start of a major push by Iraqi forces last spring is stark, according to the officers of the squadron, which is responsible for American operations in about two-thirds of the city.
That offensive, dubbed Operation Lion's Roar, was largely overshadowed by the fierce fighting in Basrah and other areas of southern Iraq that occurred at the same time. Although American forces, from airpower to advisors, were closely involved in the operation, the bulk of the fighting in western Mosul was done by Iraqi units.
"We pretty much stood back in support," according to Major Thomas Feltey, Thunder's executive officer. "It was an Iraqi show." Before the operation, according to records kept by the squadron, about six out of every ten American and Iraqi patrols were hit by insurgent fire or roadside bombs. Now the figure is roughly three in ten.
In the past year, Mosul has also come to forefront of a campaign by US and Iraqi Special Operations Forces to break down the senior leadership of al Qaeda in Iraq. Last month, in a violent raid, commandos here killed Abu Qaswara, believed to be the organization's second-in-command.
Still, while there is little doubt that the secretive Special Operations Forces have hurt insurgent leadership here, Thunder Squadron's officers maintain that the greatest impact on levels of violence in Mosul has come from the increased presence of Iraqi patrols and outposts - in part because not all insurgents here answer to al Qaeda in Iraq.
"Of course AQI is here, and they're very dangerous," said Captain Camille Johnson, the squadron intelligence officer, using the military's acronym for the group. "But they're not huge. Their role is more that they can assist and enable the insurgency with foreign fighters, suicide vests, and so on. The insurgency itself is bigger."
In a departure from the US approach in many other areas of Iraq, Thunder Squadron has focused on building as many new Iraqi outposts as possible, not on manning American ones. "Typically what we've done," said Feltey, "is to push out into the new combat outposts, hang around for a few weeks to help the Iraqis get up and running, and then pull back." There are currently forty-two of these small forward outposts in western Mosul, all but seven of them Iraqi.
Killer Troop shares its sector with six battalions of the Iraqi Army and National Police, a much lower ratio of American to Iraqi troops than existed in Baghdad, Ramadi, Baqubah, and other battlegrounds during the surge. Typically, one of the troop's platoons is based at a forward position called Combat Outpost Rabi, or Killer Base, situated near the troubled neighborhoods of Zanjili, Maghreb, Thawra, and Yarmuk.
On patrol with soldiers from Killer Troop and two National Police units - the Jalil Battalion and the 2nd Battalion of the "Knights' Raid" Brigade - the changing role of Iraqi troops here in Mosul was clear. When the Iraqi patrol leader stopped in the street to question residents about insurgent activity, the American platoon leader, First Lieutenant Haynes, hung back. The lieutenant had his interpreter quietly tell him the content of the discussion, but he did not interject with his own questions.
"My guys will usually hang back and try to push the Iraqis up to the front," Haynes explained. "We're supposed to be there more to give them confidence than anything else. Having our helicopters overhead helps with that, too, because no one will mess with you when a Kiowa's around."
After the explosion of a small car bomb echoed across the city, Haynes's platoon was diverted from a routine patrol to secure the site of the blast. Local police, guarded by US Abrams tanks, were already on the scene, and by the time American explosives experts had arrived, their counterparts from the National Police had already been there and finished their work.