MOSUL, IRAQ: Kiowa scout helicopters buzzed over the column of American and Iraqi troops, as they often do here in Mosul, hoping to deter insurgents from attacking. Iraqis in the blue camouflage of the National Police walked at the head of the column, while Americans kept to the center and rear, hovering protectively around the senior officer they were escorting.
Major General Mark Hertling, the commander of American forces in northern Iraq, had just walked about three miles through the heart of western Mosul, accompanied by a small detachment of soldiers and the commander of the unit responsible for the area, the 3rd Squadron, 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment.
Headquartered in Tikrit, Hertling’s 1st Armored Division keeps a forward element in Mosul under Brigadier General Raymond Thomas. But Hertling himself comes to the city, the most violent not only in his sector but across Iraq, often.
Three times during the patrol, gunshots rang out from somewhere off to the right, and when a crowd of locals engulfed the general, who commands the 1st Armored Division, the soldiers responsible for his security became antsy. But the general’s tour of the sector – a “battlefield circulation,” in military jargon – went off without a hitch.
At one point, the 3rd Squadron commander, Lieutenant Colonel Keith Barclay, stopped the patrol across the street from the ruins of a building demolished by a car bomb to buy lunch at a falafel stand. Later, speaking to a cluster of teenagers who had just finished school for the day, Hertling even removed his helmet – for a few seconds.
A few months ago, the idea that any American, let alone a division commander, could walk from Combat Outpost Rabi all the way to the Tigris without incident would have been unthinkable. The area contains some of western Mosul’s worst neighborhoods, places where insurgents still attack American and Iraqi troops with grenades, small arms, and car bombs.
As the Tigris bridge came into view, marking the end of the walk, soldiers from the cavalry squadron and the general’s detail seemed both excited and relieved. “We call it the Mosul 5K,” the captain who acts as Hertling’s aide-de-camp joked. Barclay was pleased as well. “We haven’t taken very many people on that long of a route dismounted,” he observed proudly.
Across the Tigris in eastern Mosul, Hertling joined Lieutenant Colonel Christopher Johnson, the commanding officer of the 1st Battalion, 8th Infantry Regiment, which has been fighting here since January. Accompanied by armored MRAP troop transports and Bradley fighting vehicles, the general and the colonel walked down one street, meeting with two Iraqi battalion commanders while American troops leapfrogged ahead to secure intersections and angles from which insurgents could fire.
One Iraqi officer Hertling spoke to, the commander of the 3rd Iraqi Army Division’s 3rd Battalion, 9th Brigade, told the American general that while his troops had made strides in the security arena, other areas were lacking. Gesturing at the ruins of a house destroyed months ago by an insurgent car bomb, the battalion commander asked rhetorically, “Is this what they call reconstruction?”
At the Iraqi outpost that Hertling visited next, another Iraqi officer made the same point. Describing a recent patrol in southeastern Mosul, the officer, Brigadier General Baha described good security conditions but poor trash collection and sewage management. “We were walking in dirty water up to here,” he said. “So here is the security, but where is the government?”
Hertling responded sympathetically. “The security situation has gotten better several times,” he acknowledged, “but the government and the economy, they have not grown.”
And security, the general said, has a long ways to go as well: “In terms of police, we are far behind the rest of the north here. Two-thirds of the police in Mosul have not been trained properly. Ninewa is probably eight months behind Diyala in terms of police.”
Baha, who commands the 1st Iraqi Army Division’s 3rd Brigade, had his own ideas about the problems facing Mosul, and he was not shy about telling them to Hertling.
The Kurdish-dominated units of the 2nd Iraqi Army Division had been making the situation in Mosul worse, General Baha suggested, acting like foreign occupiers. “They do not speak Arabic well, and people are not sure about their loyalty,” he said. “They are part of the problem, a big part of the problem.”
“The people here say to me that the Iraqi Army is like a light bulb that was flickering, flickering, flickering, and finally it shines,” he continued, playing up the role of his own brigade, which arrived in Mosul from central Iraq this fall.
General Hertling was not pleased. “You need to be careful about suggesting that Mosul started to get better just because your brigade came here,” he admonished Baha. “It’s taken a long time, and a lot of work by many different Iraqi units.” As for the general’s allegations about the 2nd Division, Hertling was dismissive. “We’ve heard the rumors,” he said, “and unless you can come to me with names and dates of incidents, we’re not interested.”
Undeterred, Baha continued to critique the 2nd Division units serving in Mosul. When he referred to some Kurdish-dominated units as simply “Peshmerga,” as many locals in Mosul do, Hertling corrected him sharply. “They may have been Peshmerga in the past, but they are not Peshmerga now. They are Iraqi Army.”
Equipped with M16 rifles and other American gear not often seen in Mosul, the soldiers of Baha’s Sunni Arab-dominated brigade have a reputation, both here and across Iraq. For much of the past year, they have served as the “quick-reaction force” of the Iraqi military, deploying from their home in Anbar to hotspots in Basra, Sadr City, Diyala, and now Ninewa.
“They’re like the Ranger Regiment of the Iraqi Army,” an officer with 3rd Squadron said. “They’re great at kicking in doors and taking down the enemy, but they don’t like to do outposting, and they’re not really into talking to people.”