Concerns about Fatigue Mount as Iraqi Troops Prepare to Retake Mosul

Sgt. 1st Class Allan Cottone talks to Iraqi Army Soldiers (U.S. Army photo by Spc. William A. Joeckel, 2nd AAB, 1st Inf. Div., USD-C)

Elite Iraqi troops have taken the lead wherever the country's military forces have had success on the battlefield, and they are expected to do the same in the long-delayed campaign to wrest Mosul back from the Islamic State.

The so-called Counter-Terrorism Service (CTS) troops "are the best light infantry the Iraqis have," said Sen. Jack Reed, a Democrat from Rhode Island and the ranking Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee, said of the CTS troops.

But, the senator added, they risk being worn out by overuse.

The elite forces recently led the way in taking back Ramadi from militants affiliated with the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or ISIS and earlier spearheaded the offensive to recapture Tikrit when conventional Iraqi troops and Shia militias backed by Iran failed. They held on at the Baiji oil refinery when others fled and recently routed ISIS in fighting near Haditha in western Anbar province, according to U.S. and Iraqi officials.

"They are beginning to prepare for other efforts to retake territory" from ISIS, said Reed, who recently returned from Iraq and meetings with U.S. and Iraqi commanders.

"One of the major objectives is Mosul," he said, but "that's probably months and months away" in the campaign against ISIS.

Joint Chiefs Chairman Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford said the U.S. was looking at ways to speed up the timeline for commencing operations in Mosul. In Paris on Sunday, Dunford told reporters traveling with him that he will soon make recommendations to President Barack Obama on the possible repositioning of U.S. troops in northern Iraq to aid an assault on Mosul, Iraq's second-largest city.

"We're about winning" and "we want to have the Iraqis win," he said.

The repositioning would involve placing U.S. advisors closer to Mosul than the Joint Operations Center in Irbil, capital of the Kurdish autonomous region, according to a Defense Department news release.

"It is fair to say we will have positions -- we already do (in Irbil) -- up in the north that will facilitate supporting Iraqi security forces as they isolate Mosul," Dunford said after meetings with Gen. Pierre de Villiers, chief of France's defense staff.

For the Iraqi Security Forces, the push north from Baiji up the Tigris River valley to Mosul will require more Iraqi troops and more U.S. soldiers to train them for a major operation, Army Col. Steve Warren, a spokesman for Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve, said in a briefing to the Pentagon from Baghdad last week.

"Hundreds, not thousands" of additional U.S. troops will have to be deployed for the training assignment, he said. "The reason we need new trainers or additional trainers is because that's really the next step in generating the amount of combat power needed to liberate Mosul."

Warren added, "We know we will need more (Iraqi) brigades to be trained, we'll need more troops trained in more specialties" to liberate Mosul, the largest city controlled by ISIS.

It was impossible to know how many ISIS fighters were defending Mosul, but Warren said the estimates run from 5,000 to 10,000. To take back the city, the second largest in Iraq, "We think we're going to need, you know, in the neighborhood of eight trained brigades" of about 3,000 troops each, he said, "but that's adjustable."

In Ramadi, three brigades of Iraqi Security Forces were used but only after the Counter-Terrorism Service troops cleared the way into the city. The troops threw up a pontoon bridge across the Euphrates River after ISIS militants blew the existing bridges. The elite forces then attacked to the city center, using bulldozers to throw up earth berms on either side of the advance to block ISIS suicide truck bombers on their flanks, Warren said.

The Ramadi assault followed a pattern of Iraqi attack -- CTS troops lead the way, conventional ISF forces conduct clearing operations, and Iraqi National Police, and on occasion Sunni tribal fighter, provide continuing security for rebuilding efforts.

When Ramadi was retaken, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said that Mosul also would be retaken in 2016. "We are coming to liberate Mosul, which will be the fatal blow to" ISIS, he said.

In the north, Fuad Hussein, chief of staff of the Kurdish Peshmerga forces, said his troops were ready for the push on Mosul but were awaiting the arrival of the Counter-Terrorism Service and Iraqi Security Forces.

"We had [a] discussion to liberate Mosul last year in March, and now we're in January 2016. So it has been delayed," Hussein told the Kurdish Rudaw news service last week. "The question is why? To be honest it has to do with the Iraqis -- we need a partner."

Hussein praised the professionalism of the elite CTS troops. "That unit has good fighters and are well organized and has a lot of experience," he said, "So we need them to be with us as partners so that we can jointly, with the American help, liberate Mosul."

Since the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, the CTS, which was created by the U.S., has received the most training and the best equipment from the U.S., which recognized their unique role in the Iraqi national security structure as a relatively independent and non-sectarian fighting force.

To avoid political influence that plagues other units, the Counter-Terrorism Service reports directly to the prime minister, rather than going through the Ministry of Defense and the Ministry of Interior.

In a paper on the elite troops for the Brookings Institution, retired Army Special Operations Col. David Witty, said, "Organizations such as CTS are at the heart of U.S. strategies in the Middle East that aim to develop indigenous capacity to combat insurgents and terrorists."

After ISIS invaded Iraq and took Mosul in 2014, "five of Iraq's 14 Army divisions were rated as ineffective, or had disappeared completely. U.S. advisers rated remaining units as infiltrated with Shia militias and Sunni extremists. At the other extreme, the Counter-Terrorism Service was assessed as the one bright spot of ISF. It was the best military organ," Witty said.

The elite unit "was able to maintain its cohesion and effectiveness, despite experiencing some of the most intensive combat, suffering heavy losses, and continuing to be used as a regular, although elite, ISF unit, rather than in a dedicated counter-terrorism role," Witty said.

In a roundtable session with reporters earlier this month, Sen. Reed said of the service, "We need to have capable forces fighting alongside them, and that's the goal, and we are trying to train up those forces now."

--Richard Sisk can be reached at

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