WASHINGTON — An exhausted and ill-equipped Iraqi Army faces daunting obstacles on the battlefield that will most likely delay for months a long-planned major offensive on the Islamic State stronghold of Mosul, American and allied officials say.
The delay is expected despite American efforts to keep Iraq’s creaky war machine on track. Although President Obama vowed to end the United States’ role in the war in Iraq, in the last two years the American military has increasingly provided logistics to prop up the Iraqi military, which has struggled to move basics like food, water and ammunition to its troops.
Without the help, Americans commanders said, the offensive against Mosul would most likely fail.
Americans are ferrying equipment and spare parts directly to the battlefield by cargo plane, helping arrange purchases of ammunition for Soviet-era equipment and pressing the Iraqis to adopt measures to improve a supply chain that would run over 200 miles from Defense Ministry depots in the Baghdad area to Mosul.
But no matter how hard the Americans push, the Iraqis can go only so fast. The pace of ground operations is likely to become even slower in the summer’s searing heat and during the coming holy month of Ramadan, when Muslims often fast during the day. Much of the Iraqis’ equipment needs to be repaired or replaced, and many Iraqi units will require additional training before attacking Mosul.
“A lull won’t be sexy, but it’s the hard and important work that needs to be done to generate combat power,” said Col. Steven Warren, who until this month was the top American military spokesman in Iraq.
The logistical challenges are far from the only hurdles facing the United States as it struggles to deal with the complexities in Iraq.
Iran is supporting tens of thousands of Iraqi soldiers, police officers and Shiite militiamen who are preparing for an assault against the Islamic State in the Sunni city of Falluja in western Iraq, which has raised fears of a sectarian blood bath. Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi of Iraq ordered the Falluja offensive over the objections of American advisers who urged him to focus on the bigger prize of Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city and the de facto headquarters of the Islamic State in Iraq. But after a series of Islamic State suicide bombings last month killed hundreds in Baghdad, Mr. Abadi faced growing domestic pressure to stop the threat in Falluja, which is about 35 miles west of the capital.
The Iraqis have long struggled with their military organization, but the problem worsened in the summer of 2014 when the Islamic State seized wide swaths of territory in western and northern Iraq and stole much of the military’s trucks and other equipment used to move troops and supplies.
Since then, American logisticians have been working directly with the Iraqis to try to improve their supply chain.
The problem has been complicated because the Iraqi military is made up of a mix of equipment and weapons from the Soviet era, the United States and elsewhere. The Iraqis rely on an antiquated maintenance system that sends broken equipment to Baghdad to be fixed, and they do not have an automated system for tracking their supplies.
American advisers have worked to overhaul the maintenance system, encouraging the Iraqis to develop the ability to do repairs closer to the battlefields. The Americans have also arranged for other countries in the coalition fighting the Islamic State to give or sell the Iraqis the ammunition and parts they need to keep their military functioning.
The Americans have also taken the lead in preparing detailed schedules for moving troops, training them, and delivering ammunition and equipment to the battlefield.
“As the Iraqis move farther away from their depots at places like Taji, they will have to adopt similar sustainment practices,” Lt. Gen. Sean B. MacFarland, the top American commander in Iraq, said in an email, referring to a city just north of Baghdad. “To do this requires a good deal of reorganization.”
“Extending the reach of the Iraqi security forces also requires logistics planning,” General MacFarland said. “We are doing a great deal of that for the Iraqis because we recognize that Rome wasn’t built in a day.”
The Iraqis have had some success against the Islamic State since December. This year, for the first time since the fighting against the Islamic State began in August 2014, the terrorist group has not gained any additional territory. The Iraqis have reclaimed the city of Ramadi and several smaller cities in western and northern Iraq.
Backed by American-led air power, Iraqi forces have regained 45 percent of the territory the Islamic State seized in 2014, American commanders say, an increase from 40 percent at the beginning of the year. Bombing by Americans and other European countries involved in the fight, including the British and French, has halved the Islamic State’s oil production and cut its revenues between 30 and 50 percent, American intelligence analysts say.
But the analysts have concluded that many of the areas that the Iraqis need to reclaim — including Mosul — will be more difficult to seize because the Islamic State has controlled them for a longer period and has heavily fortified them.
The Islamic State has roughly 19,000 to 25,000 fighters, about half in Iraq and half in Syria, Colonel Warren said. Most of the 10,000 to 12,000 in Iraq are concentrated around Mosul, in the Tal Afar area, and elsewhere in Nineveh Province.
The expected delay in the Mosul offensive highlights the frustrations of the Obama administration with the seesaw nature of the Iraqi ground campaign. But Mr. Obama and his commanders decided that it was better for Iraqis to control the tempo of the counteroffensive, even with its fits and starts, than for the United States to reclaim a leading combat role that Mr. Obama thought he had ended when he withdrew all American troops in 2011.
“Logistics is one of the things we are most concerned about, so we look to do everything we can to keep the timeline on track,” said Col. Christopher Garver, the United States spokesman for the coalition fighting the Islamic State in Iraq. “Yes, there’s a danger of things slipping to the right on the calendar, as we say, pushing into the future, but we have a whole team working to prevent that from happening.”
In interviews, Iraqi commanders in the Falluja operation acknowledged some of the challenges facing their troops, but they sought to discount the impact on their operations.
“We have a lot of experience fighting in the hot weather and are used to it, but, yes, fighting in the heat is a very difficult thing,” said Abdul Wahab al-Saaidi, the commander of military operations in Falluja. “The enemy in front of us is ISIS, and it is not an easy enemy and we don’t want to give it the impression that our fighters are getting tired in the hot weather. So no matter high the temperatures are, we will continue fighting until liberating Falluja entirely.”
The commander of operations in nearby Ramadi said the military would make some tactical adjustments because of the heat but not stop fighting altogether.
“Let’s be frank: In Iraq, even if we go to market we get annoyed by the heat,” said the commander, Ismael al-Mahallawi. “But we must beat the heat and put the appropriate plans in place to get over it and continue operations. We will take advantage of the dawn times to attack.”
Asked for a description of the air campaign in the coming months, Lt. Gen. Charles Q. Brown Jr., the American air war commander, said he would keep the pressure on the Islamic State, even if the tempo of the Iraqi ground offensive eased.
“As the Air Force, we’re able to strike ahead of the ground maneuver,” General Brown said. “I know where the next fight is going to be. Then what I want to be able to do is actually soften up that with strikes ahead of the ground maneuver.”
(via NY Times)