MAKHMUR, Iraqi Kurdistan – On July 9 the Iraqi Army swept into Qayyara Airfield West, about 60 km. south of Islamic State’s Iraqi headquarters of Mosul. “They took the air base earlier than expected” was the consensus among the international coalition members two weeks ago, who are supporting the Iraqi Army’s war against Islamic State. On July 11, in a surprise visit to Iraq, Secretary of Defense Ash Carter promised an additional 560 US troops would be sent to help the Iraqi Army’s Mosul offensive.
For more than a year-and-a-half there have been whispers of a Mosul offensive, but until now it has proceeded at a snail’s pace. The Combined Joint Task Force Operation Inherent Resolve continues to conduct air strikes daily in Iraq, averaging around 10 a day. Dozens of partner nations provide training and other forms of aid to the operation to defeat Islamic State.
But the real story in Iraq is that things can proceed only as fast as the Iraqi Army and the peshmerga from the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in the north are willing to push forward.
“In Qayyara there is still fighting and it’s not safe for coalition members. They need to do a full sweep [for mines] of the base and then do a ground logistical movement,” said a coalition spokesman.
Since the Islamic State advance was checked in 2014, it has become expert at rigging every house in many villages with bombs. In one account in Syria, more than 400 mines were found in just one small village.
That means that the sprawling Qayyara air base, which is 24 square kilometers, won’t be up and running anytime soon. Shelling from Islamic State forces south of Qayyara wounded 30 civilians on Sunday, July 24, and an Iraqi television cameraman for Al-Ghadeer named Ali Mahmud was killed on July 13. Journalist Ayub Nuri of Rudaw, a Kurdish media network, went out with the Iraqi Army last week for a tour of the front line and he wrote that his escorts got lost and drove the journalists into a sniper’s field of fire.
His report makes it clear that Islamic State isn’t finished, and those tasked with defeating it have a long road ahead of them.
Our visit to an Iraqi Army base in Makhmur on July 19 made that clear.
Sandwiched between a Kurdish peshmerga base and an American-run base, the Iraqis were busy welding armor to US Humvees. The defense minister had just opened a road across the Tigris so that Iraqi equipment could pass from Makhmur, the closest Kurdish front line to Islamic State, to the Iraqi Army across the river.
Despite being on the same side against Islamic State, the KRG and the Iraqi central government have strained relations.
During a drive into the dusk toward the front line, we could see the smoke from Islamic State burning material to obscure its fighters from coalition aircraft.
It looked a bit like hell amid the red sunset.
At the last Kurdish checkpoint before the front, with Arab refugees arriving by the truckload, fleeing Islamic State, the Kurds warned us that it was dangerous up ahead.
“It’s the Iraq Army, don’t go,” they said.
There is a strange feeling of déjà vu in Iraq and the Kurdish region. Everywhere on the front line there seem to be sand-filled prefab Hesco barriers, the ubiquitous ready-made US solution to defending a position.
Qayyara air base used to be Saddam Airbase, a memory from the old times. And everyone here seems to be a veteran of 20 or 30 years of war. A coalition serviceman we spoke to said he’d been in the surge in 2007-2008. A Kurdish officer said he’d been born in prison because his mother had been locked up by Saddam.
This continuity with history leads one to question what the long-term effect of Islamic State will be.
Its ethnic cleansing of minorities – religious groups such as the Assyrian Christians, Kakei and Shabaks – and genocide of Yazidis permanently altered the Nineveh plains and areas under its control. In taking back Sunni cities such as Ramadi and Fallujah, the old Sunni triangle that bedeviled the Americans after 2003, the Iraqi Army and its Iranian-backed Shi’a militias leveled the cities. Eighty percent of Ramadi is destroyed, its residents removed. In Saadiya, a town between the Kurdish region and Iraqi government control, 160 km. northeast of Baghdad, the mayor told Al Jazeera that “unemployment, corruption, inadequate services and sectarian rivalries are undermining trust in the government, laying the foundations for a fresh round of violence.”
There are major generational and demographic changes being set in place now that won’t be reversed.
Kurds who suffered grievously under Saddam are now masters of their destiny. The KRG fears the Iranian influence in Baghdad and has trouble selling its oil amid a market glut, but it has carved out relations with Turkey and Saudi Arabia that might have been unthinkable before.
A symbol of these changes is the al-Hashd al-Watani, a mostly Sunni militia run by the former governor of the Nineveh plains and Mosul, Atheel Nujaifi.
Because the Sunnis fear Baghdad, those in exile from Mosul have grown closer to the Kurds. Ironically, some of the officers of this Sunni group served in what they call the “old army,” or Saddam’s army. They wouldn’t have thought in 1986 that 30 years later, the Kurds would have an autonomous region and that they would count on the Kurds as allies against rising Shi’a and Iranian power.
The bifurcation between Baghdad and Erbil, the KRG capital, is well understood by the coalition. Recently, US Acting Assistant Secretary of Defense Elissa Slotkin signed a memorandum to fund the peshmerga directly, since Kurds have accused Baghdad of not passing on funds earmarked for their region. Seven partner nations, such as Germany, Italy and the UK, have trained more than two brigades of peshmerga and outfitted them with M-16s, body armor, antitank weapons and 80 Humvees. Under a similar training program the US and its coalition Building Partner Capacity program have trained 34,000 Iraqi Army soldiers.
It is these newly trained Iraqi soldiers who are supposed to be leading the way to Mosul.
KRG Prime Minister Nechervan Barzani, in a July 24 interview with Voice of America, said peshmerga will have a “central role” but that the international community needs to step forward to aid the KRG in its economic crisis and support the millions of refugees who have fled Islamic State.
The Sunni Arab states, including Turkey and Saudi Arabia, want Mosul to be pried away from Islamic State and returned to the fold. It is the last Sunni city in Iraq that has not been destroyed and a traditional crossroads of culture and trade.
From the Kurdish front line at Bashiqa, the lights of Mosul can be seen, only 17 km. away. There is an illusion of proximity, like the British perhaps felt looking at the coast of France in 1943.
With 60 partner nations in Inherent Resolve, and the whole region waiting, there is a combined feeling on the ground that once Islamic State is inevitably defeated, it will only lead to new challenges, such as satisfying Sunni demands and increased tensions between the Kurds and Iran.