In eastern Mosul, veteran Iraqi unit adapts to new situation

MOSUL, IRAQ: Among most American troops in Iraq, the city of Mosul has a reputation – the last urban battlefield, the place where the country’s Sunni insurgency remains strongest. But for some of the Iraqi units that operate in the city, the security situation is nothing they have not seen before.

The 3rd Iraqi Army Division’s 3rd Battalion, 9th Brigade, is one such unit. Until this past spring, 3-9, as the battalion is known, was stationed in Baghdad’s East Rashid district. Operating in the Dora neighborhood, one of the last Baghdad strongholds of al Qaeda in Iraq, the battalion saw fierce combat. “Compared to al Dora,” the unit’s commander, Colonel Najem Abdul Wahad Mutleq, explained, “this is nothing here in Mosul.”

Typically, American combat units in Iraq spend the bulk of their yearlong deployments in one location, be it a province or a neighborhood. For Iraqi combat units, though, there is no such thing as a deployment – just a new mission in a new location. Individual soldiers regularly visit their families on leave, but for a unit as a whole, there is no respite. After leaving East Rashid this spring, 3-9 was dispatched to eastern Mosul.

Here, the battalion faces a different mission in a very different environment. In East Rashid, 3-9 fought as a clearing force, facing stiff resistance from insurgent fighters in entrenched positions, Colonel Najem recalled. In eastern Mosul, what the military calls the clearing phase is largely complete; the job of security forces now is to gather intelligence from a wary population about those insurgents who remain.

There is little doubt that the battalion’s soldiers learned valuable lessons in Baghdad, according to Captain Alexander Rasmussen, an American officer who works closely with them. Equipped with M16 rifles and other up-to-date equipment, 3-9’s troops appear, as American troops say, “squared away” to an unusual degree.

The battalion has come to Mosul, too, with a strong background in some of the more difficult aspects of counterinsurgency – forging bonds with the population in order to gather intelligence and isolate enemy fighters, for example. Asked if he could name one main, underlying problem with the security situation in his area, Colonel Najem answered without hesitation: “There is no sense of community here. People do not know their neighbors, so when bad people come in, like Tal Afaris, they do not know.” Many of the rank-and-file insurgents in Mosul are believed to have ties to the western city of Tal Afar.

In other ways, though, 3-9’s experience in Baghdad seems to have hindered its adaptation to Mosul. In a meeting with Captain Rasmussen, who commands Delta Company, 1st Battalion, 8th Infantry, Colonel Najem laid out the two-step plan that, in his view, would bring security to his portion of Mosul, which includes the volatile neighborhood of Karama, an area prone to grenade attacks.

“First point: clearance,” the colonel said, before describing the tactics his unit had used during the clearance of Dora in East Rashid. Among other things, he recalled a series of major pushes by American infantry forces, and a system whereby the entire neighborhood was cordoned off and residents were tracked with bracelets and stamps when they came and went.

Like other American officers in Mosul, Captain Rasmussen had heard this before, and he doubted that it was practical. In Baghdad, he reminded Colonel Najem, 3-9 had worked with a full battalion of American infantry concentrating on one neighborhood. In Mosul, a smaller American battalion was responsible for a large chunk of the city; with only the captain’s Delta Company in support, 3-9 would have to take on the lead clearing role itself. Colonel Najem conceded the point: “The coalition forces here are very few. Not like in Baghdad.”

Undeterred, the colonel continued to explain what he felt the area needed for lasting security. “Second point, Sahwa,” he said, using the Arabic word associated with the “Awakening” of Sunni tribes in Baghdad and other areas of Iraq.

Captain Rasmussen shook his head skeptically and tried to steer the conversation elsewhere. American commanders have long believed that Ninewa, the province of which Mosul is the capital, is too ethnically and tribally complex to be fertile ground for any kind of Sahwa movement. As the colonel himself had said a few minutes earlier, the heavily urban city lacked the tribal structure and “sense of community” on which the Sahwa in central Iraq was built.

For the rest of the meeting, the captain and colonel discussed shorter-term plans to build a new outpost, aimed at putting a permanent Iraqi Army presence in a market that insurgent leaders are thought to frequent. Here, Colonel Najem agreed enthusiastically. “We need to concentrate on the places where they plan IEDs and ambushes,” he said. “We need to find a way to control the market.” The American captain nodded in assent.

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6 Comments

  • Andrew R. says:

    I really wonder about MNF and Maliki’s refusal to try an Awakening in Mosul. I don’t really buy the assertion that the city is too ethnically mixed–after all, throughout 2006 JAM and AQI were slaughtering their way through Baghdad and the Awakenings worked (more or less) there.

  • flyonthewall says:

    Thank you, Mr. Morgan, for your detailed coverage. I’m anxious to read comments about what looks to be a tenuous transition, to say the least. I thought I’d read about a request to delay coalition troop withdrawal from Mosul?

  • ECH says:

    Andrew R.
    The Kurds don’t want an Awakening in Mosul so it is unlikely to happen in any significant way. The Kurds have made it quite clear they will turn on Maliki politically if he keeps pushing for Awakening groups in the North. The U.S. doesn’t want to cross the Kurds either.

  • David M says:

    The Thunder Run has linked to this post in the blog post From the Front: 01/06/2009 News and Personal dispatches from the front and the home front.

  • anand says:

    Thanks for your insights into eastern Mosul (including Karama neighborhood) and IA 3-9-1. Colonel Najem seems to be a capable commanding officer.
    Can you discuss the ethic composition of the 9th Bde, 3rd Division?

  • kurdo says:

    we will start a civil war if they try to install sahwa armed sunni arab forces in kurdish majority areas this a question of our security
    we wont let arab take away our land ever again nor give them the upper hand militarily
    eastern mosul belongs to kurds and kurdistan as kerkuk and khanequin
    if the arab wants to calm the region they should allow a referendum instead of adoptibg the status quo
    why is it the case that they dont allow the referendum
    because they the arabs want still to steal our land and the excuse of bringing security to the region will only strenghten their position and the firtst thing those swaha terrorists would do is to kill kurds
    historically this is kurdish land and we will never give up our claims for the sake of some shortsighted us comanders or arab land grabers

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