Kurdish frontline, with Hawija in the distance.
(photo credit: COL. CHARLES COSTANZA/ COMMANDER OF THE COMBINED JOINT OPERATIONS CENTER ERBIL)
Iraqi security forces have launched the second phase of their operation to “crush Islamic State” in the Hawija area west of Kirkuk in northern Iraq, one of its last remaining holds in the country.
But the operation does not take place in a vacuum. In the wake of the September 25 Kurdish independence referendum, tensions have emerged between Baghdad and Erbil, which are supposed to be working together with the US-led coalition to defeat ISIS.
The ISIS pocket of Hawija looks like a large triangle, each side some 35 kilometers long.
The eastern side is composed of low, dry hills with Kurdish Peshmerga trench lines carved on top of them. Iraqi security forces have been assaulting the pocket from the other sides of the triangle, hammering ISIS onto the Kurdish anvil.
When I visited the Kurdish front line September 24, all was quiet as ISIS in Hawija prepared for its last stand. Kurdish commanders did not expect to advance from their positions.
The US-led coalition is advising and assisting the Iraqis in their advance, letting the Iraqis lead the way. One of the US officers playing a key role in advising the Hawija offensive is Col. Charles D. Costanza, who is on his fourth tour in Iraq. He arrived at the end of the offensive to retake Mosul from ISIS and advised the Iraqis during the operation to take Tal Afar as commanding officer for the Combined Joint Operations Center in Erbil. He also commands the target engagement authority and is the 1st armored division’s chief of staff.
“They [the Iraqis] are executing simultaneous operations. The 9th armored division, federal police and counter-terrorism forces are in Hawija,” he says, emphasizing that other Iraqi units are launching an offensive in Anbar province.
Up until the second phase of the Hawija battle was launched September 30, there were discussions with the Kurdish Peshmerga about having Iraqi army units come north and attack from both sides. This is what happened with Mosul, when ISIS was struck from numerous axes. The Kurdish referendum appears to have delayed this coordination and the Iraqi army chose to keep moving from one side.
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ISIS, meanwhile, doesn’t seem to be putting up the fight it did in and around Mosul. “A bit of that is attrition of their leadership, a significant amount [were] killed in Mosul,” says Costanza.
There was a deliberate targeting effort going after ISIS leadership during Mosul and Tal Afar leading up to Hawija, attacking their key capabilities, such as vehicular-based bombs called VBIEDs and their transport capabilities so they could not carry out an organized defense.
“Hawija is so far the same way, but the hard part is to come,” he says, because Hawija has been a center of insurgency and extremist networks since the 2003 invasion.
According to strike reports released by the Combined Joint Task Force, Operation Inherent Resolve, on September 28, the coalition destroyed 51 ISIS vehicles, two “tactical units” and staging areas, as well was a weapons cache, headquarters and command center. Later the same day, they also struck 29 vehicles, seven fighting positions and tunnel entrances. On September 29, the coalition hit an ISIS tactical unit and destroyed two more tunnels and four “supply routes.”
Costanza is in charge of approving air strikes, along with his other duties.
“I am the target engagement authority so I run the strike cell and that consumes my day,” he says, sitting in a bland room at the US base next to Erbil International Airport.
He has an armored corps background, and to prepare for this command he did six months of study, including a formal certification process” involving a binder “this thick,” he says holding his hands about a foot apart.
“The law of armed conflict [and how we] can and can’t operate and how we go through the process and approve a strike and collateral damage,” he says, adding that every strike is scrutinized.
That involves a combination of his own team with a lawyer and experts weighing in on the damage that will be caused and the air force assets involved.
“It’s not just about the technology, the technology is precise. It is our desire to minimize collateral damage and civilian casualties.”
So far, the battle for Hawija has gone smoothly with Iraqis expecting the city will fall soon.