Iraqi forces retake Q-West airbase south of Mosul

The Iraqi military seized control of a key airbase that will be instrumental in the campaign to retake the northern city of Mosul from the Islamic State. Their takeover of Qayyarah Airfiled West, or Q-West, coincided with US Secretary of Defense Ash Carter’s visit to Iraq and the announcement that an additional 560 US troops will be deployed to aid in the Mosul offensive.

“With the retaking of Qayyarah West airfield, the Iraqi Security Forces have once again demonstrated a serious will to fight,” Carter said, according to a DoD press release. “I congratulate them on their recent successes and reaffirm that the United States, along with our coalition partners, will continue to do all we can to support Iraq’s effort to serve ISIL [Islamic State] a lasting defeat.”

The additional 560 “will provide a range of support for Iraqi Security Forces, including infrastructure and logistical capabilities at the airfield near Qayyarah,” the DoD press release noted.

Q-West “will become a vital springboard for the ISF [Iraqi Security Forces] offensive into Mosul,” while “Coalition forces will also continue to provide enabler support to Kurdish Peshmerga as they converge on Mosul from Iraq’s north.”

The loss of Q-West is the latest in a series of defeats for the Islamic State. This year, the Islamic State has lost the following four cities: Ramadi, Fallujah, Baiji, and Sinjar.

The Iraqi military, often backed by Iranian-supported Shia militias, has regained the initiative after a string of defeats beginning in January 2014 that saw nearly one third of the country fall under the Islamic State’s control.

The Iraqi government has said it hopes to retake Mosul, the last major city in Iraq under Islamic State control, by the end of the year. The Islamic State also controls a large area south of Mosul; most of these areas will need to be cleared before Iraqi forces can enter the city.

Carter said that the Iraqi government and the US are working to “hasten ISIL’s lasting defeat.”

However, the Islamic State’s predecessor, the Islamic State of Iraq (a front for al Qaeda in Iraq), has already suffered significant losses during the US military “surge” from 2007 to 2011 and recovered since then. The Islamic State in Iraq was forced to abandon areas it controlled and reverted to conducting guerrilla attacks, assassinations, and suicide attacks while regenerating its losses. Additionally, the Islamic State took advantage of the Syrian civil war to establish a branch there (Al Nusrah Front). By January 2014, the Islamic State in Iraq overran Fallujah and by June of the same year, it overran much of northern, central, and western Iraq.

The Islamic State appears to be following the same strategy in Iraq. Its forces are not fighting to the death in Iraq’s cities, but have largely melted away as Iraqi troops and Shia militias advance. As it has withdrawn its forces from cities and towns it controls, it has stepped up suicide attacks throughout the country. In the first six months of 2016, the Islamic State has claimed credit for nearly 600 suicide attacks.

Carter and the Iraqi government have not discussed how military actions alone will “hasten ISIL’s lasting defeat.” There has been no discussion as to how the Coalition will combat the Islamic State’s powerful and appealing ideology, which is based on a radical interpretation of Islam. Additionally, the use of Shia militias to combat the Islamic State provides recruiting fodder for the Islamic State, which has warned Sunnis that Iran is directing Iraq’s government.

Bill Roggio is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Editor of FDD's Long War Journal.

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