BASMAYA, Iraq — The U.S.-led coalition is planning for the day when Iraq will be free of the Islamic State group, ramping up training of a future Mosul police force — even as the battle for the rest of the city is briefly on hold.
Sometime during the lull, significant numbers of the security forces are expected to move into villages scattered across the plains of Ninevah province around Mosul and also into parts of the city retaken from IS over the past three months.
The Iraqi military declared Mosul's eastern half "fully liberated" in January and is now preparing to battle for the city's western sector — likely to be a much tougher fight in a dense and overcrowded urban environment. The operation to free Iraq's second-largest city has been the most complex challenge for Iraqi forces to date.
With more than 100,000 soldiers, police, tribal and militia fighters deployed for the offensive, Iraqi leaders are aware that after IS militants are routed from Mosul, a well-trained police force will be needed on the ground — to keep the hard-won victory.
In the blistery winter wind, a few hundred police recruits shuffled in place to keep warm during a recent training exercise at a coalition base run by the Spanish Army in Basmaya, east of the Iraqi capital, Baghdad.
The young men, mostly in their twenties and thirties, have had no previous training or experience. Many carried dilapidated Kalashnikov-style rifles, slung over their shoulders with rope or rubber-coated wire.
"We start our program at a very basic level," said Spanish Army's First Lt. Carlos Egido, who works as a trainer with the U.S.-led coalition. "When they arrive, they don't have any skills."
Ninevah's police force — along with Iraq's military — largely evaporated when IS first pushed into the province from neighboring Syria in the summer of 2014. Since then, the U.S.-led coalition has largely focused on building up combat forces for the Mosul operation.
But after the operation, a "well-trained police force will be key to Iraq's long-term security," said Spanish Army Brig. Gen. Angel Castilla, who oversees the police training.
For now, the training lasts only five weeks, which Castilla said is inadequate in the long term but forced by the condensed timetable.
"We hope they will return to be retrained," he added, explaining that the objective is to rebuild the province's police force within months.
Watching the training at Basmaya, Nineveh police officer Lt. Col. Hassan Omar Abdullah said the recruits made him feel hopeful despite their lack of experience.
Abdullah was in Mosul the day IS overran the city and fled as he saw other officers and units around him do the same. The old police force was corrupt, which is in part why Mosul fell to IS so easily, he said.
He warned that IS will likely remain a threat for a long time ahead in Iraq, so having a well-trained police force is critical.
"This will be the biggest challenge," he said.