Wladimir van Wilgenburg

Iraqi army’s first Mosul
operation bogs down

A leading Kurdish Peshmerga commander criticized the offensive, telling NOW it was poorly planned and executed.

Iraqi forces outside Makhmur. (Courtesy of Wladimir van Wilgenburg)

MAKHMUR, IRAQ - Last week, two Iraqi army brigades launched their first operation to capture Qayarra, a town along the Tigris River seen as a staging ground for the future battle to take Mosul. Nevertheless, they have not progressed much in their westward drive from Makhmur and only captured three villages. Leading Peshmerga commanders told NOW the operation was badly planned.

“The Iraqis announced an operation supported by Coalition air power to liberate several towns in the vicinity of Makhmur. These operations are a continuation of the shaping operations toward the eventual assault to liberate Mosul,” the US-led CJTF-Operation Inherent Resolve Public Affairs desk said in an email statement.


A Coalition spokesperson, Captain Moore, painted an optimistic picture of the offensive to NOW last week, saying over the phone that the "operations were successful, and the Iraqi forces managed to liberate three villages. They are continuing these operations."

Iraqi Forces

Iraqi forces in the Makhmur area. (Courtesy of Wladimir van Wilgenburg)


However, analysts cautioned that the long-anticipated battle for Mosul itself will require more time and preparation.

“I think more time will be needed before we see Iraqi forces near the city itself, but this kind of operation is absolutely necessary before any movement on Mosul can begin,” Sajad Jiyad, Political Analyst at Al-Bayan Center for Planning and Studies based in Baghdad, told NOW.

“I think it will be a success and sends a powerful message to Daesh [ISIS] that Iraqi forces are now only a short distance away from Mosul and that the ISF are on the offensive deep in what used to be Daesh territory,” he added.


Michael Knights, an Iraq expert at the Washington Institute think-tank, said that the offensive around Makhmur—a district in the autonomous Kurdish region approximately 70 kilometers southeast of Mosul—served as a “trial run for the new 15th Division” trained by the US in Baghdad.


“Lessons were learned the hard way and new attacks will now be planned and executed,” he told NOW.


Kurds and Sunni Arabs from Mosul are critical though of the progress made by the Iraqi army. “Imagine, it took them four days, and they haven’t taken Al-Nasr yet, how they can liberate Mosul?” a tribal leader in the Sabahawi tribe told NOW on the condition of anonymity.

Major General Sirwan Barzani, who is the sector commander for the Kurdish Peshmerga’s Makhmur Gwer front, lambasted the Iraqi forces for failing to achieve their goal of taking the Hajj Ali area on the eastern bank of the Tigris River which flows alongside Qayarra.


Instead of reaching the river along the border of Mosul’s Ninevah Province, the Kurdish official said Iraqi forces were “still stuck in Al-Nasr,” a village eight kilometers northeast of Qayarra.

“If my Peshmerga had half of these weapons and armored vehicles, we would have captured these villages in a maximum of two days,’ he told NOW on Monday. Barzani boasted that his forces captured 22 villages in only five hours in a sector under his command last year, while the Iraqi soldiers are still struggling to capture more than four villages in a whole week.


“Maybe it is a tactic of the Iraqi army to go so slow,” he said. “Even Ramadi and Baiji took them months… I told them if you go faster, and divide their forces between your positions, you lose fewer men.”


Iraqi forces

Iraqi forces in the Makhmur area. (Courtesy of Wladimir van Wilgenburg)


He added that two of the villages recently seized by the Iraqi army, Kudela and Karmardi, had already been briefly taken by Kurdish forces months ago, but Sunni Iraqi tribal forces could not hold them without Peshmerga support and were forced to leave the area.

“They wanted us to come back and stay there, but I said I will go back as planned,” Barzani said. “They asked us to stay for two nights, but I told them I will not stay even one extra hour.” Now these two villages, which were mostly empty when the Iraqis first took them, are back under Iraqi control.

“When the [new Makhmur] operation started I was not there.  Until the last minute there was no confirmation from Baghdad,” Barzani told NOW in an indication of the weak coordination between the Kurdish forces and the Iraqi army.

“I was talking to the commanders there and asked them to postpone it,” he added. However, they had already started the offensive, “So, I asked the Peshmergas to help them and to send extra troops to the frontline.”


Barzani questioned why the Iraqi army did not take into account the weather before the launch of the operations, which were set back by poor conditions that hindered airstrikes. “The weather forecast predicted bad rainy and foggy weather, one week before, in this case, it’s difficult for airstrikes to help,” he told NOW.

Moreover, he said the Iraqis made the mistake of attacking the village of Al-Nasr from only one direction, instead of pushing from three different points: Tel Shair, Sultan Abdullah, and Tel Nasr. “I told them yesterday, they will loose many Iraqi soldiers like this, they need to reorganize themselves, with a new plan, to go forward at the same time.”
Barzani explained that he had already delayed the arrival of Iraqi troops for at least seven months. “I told them finish your training in Baghdad, and then come here,” he told NOW. “If you stay here, there will be more pressure against my sector, and they will start sending suicide bombers, and carry out mortar strikes,” he added.

“Can you imagine that ISIS fighters are ready to kill themselves for a checkpoint with only two soldiers, now can you imagine 1000 people in a three-square kilometer [area], reachable by artillery and mortars,” he said.


The US suffered one casualty from ISIS fire on Makhmur when a Marine was killed during a March 19 rocket strike on a Coalition base in the area. 


Wladimir van Wilgenburg is a political analyst and freelance journalist specializing in Kurdish politics, based in Erbil. He tweets @vvanwilgenburg

Iraqi forces outside Makhmur. (Courtesy of Wladimir van Wilgenburg)

If my Peshmerga had half of these weapons and armored vehicles, we would have captured these villages in a maximum of two days.

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