Tensions Arise Among Allies Fighting to Retake ISIS-Held Mosul — Kurdish Peshmerga critical of their partners in the Iraqi military

On second day of offensive, Kurdish fighters accuse the Iraqi army of inaction

“Is it the Iraqi army or is it the Iranian army?”

Updated Oct. 18, 2016 6:51 p.m. ET

Tensions emerged Tuesday among allied forces fighting to retake the northern Iraqi city of Mosul from Islamic State, a day after the offensive was launched.

The long-awaited assault on the extremist group’s last major Iraqi stronghold began Monday with rapid advances, including by a contingent of Kurdish fighters who stormed nine nearby villages in the first phase of the effort to retake Iraq’s second-largest city. The pace slowed Tuesday as the Kurdish fighters, known as Peshmerga, consolidated their gains and prepared for the next push.

They also criticized their partners in the Iraqi military.

“The Iraqi army hasn’t moved even a bit,” said the Peshmerga’s Gen. Sihad Barzani, brother of Iraqi Kurdistan’s president, Masoud Barzani. “The plan was us taking villages, and then the Iraqi army takes some of them. They didn’t.”

Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga forces rest near the front line at the start of the offensive to retake Mosul from Islamic State, Monday. Iraqi and Kurdish commanders said Tuesday they have paused their advance on Mosul.
Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga forces rest near the front line at the start of the offensive to retake Mosul from Islamic State, Monday. Iraqi and Kurdish commanders said Tuesday they have paused their advance on Mosul. PHOTO:ANDREA DICENZO FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

As he spoke, Gen. Barzani gestured to a nearby staging area where Iraqi artillery pieces sat hitched to trucks and covered with tarps, waiting to be transported to the front.

“Our front didn’t start yet. We’re waiting for the Peshmerga to finish,” said Iraqi army Gen. Hazaa Korek, who is in charge of those artillery pieces. His unit had planned to move farther toward the front the previous day, he said, “but we got mortared a lot and had to settle down here.”

Simmering rivalries and competing claims among the fighting forces participating in the battle are among the main concerns in what could be a lengthy offensive to retake Mosul from Islamic State. Those forces include the Kurds, the Iraqi military and Shiite and Sunni militias. Mosul is majority Sunni.

President Barack Obama on Tuesday predicted a difficult battle, but said the extremists would be driven out of the city. “I’m confident that we can succeed, though it’s going to be a tough fight and a difficult fight,” Mr. Obama said. “There will be ups and downs in this process.”

U.S. officials predict that it will be weeks before Iraqi forces actually enter the city of about one million people. Fortifications Islamic State has set up in Mosul indicate that the group has geared up for a protracted fight, they said, warning that Islamic State could use nonlethal chemical weapons against the U.S.-backed forces.

U.S. Navy Capt. Jeff Davis, a Pentagon spokesman, said the Iraqi security forces would likely leapfrog the Peshmerga as the groups move into non-Kurdish territories on the approach to Mosul from the east.

“It’s well known that these villages in here where they advanced to yesterday—these were historically Kurdish villages,” Capt. Davis said. “It would make sense that the Kurds would do the lion’s share of the work there. As they move closer to Mosul, that ethnic dynamic changes a bit, and I think you’ll see the Iraqi [security forces] begin to be more of the frontline troops.”

Capt. Davis noted that forces often pause in the course of any advance on a city, whether to refuel or wait for others to catch up.

“There will be built-in times as they move where they are going to stop and wait for logistics, back clearance, anything else they need to do,” he said.

Iraqi army officials said the offensive had not slowed and said they took several villages on a different front, about 25 miles east of central Mosul. They say there is no tension between Peshmerga and army officials, though rank-and-file Kurdish fighters said they were unhappy with the Iraqi military.

“What’s left for them to do if we clear everything?” asked Peshmerga Warrant OfficerYadgar Muhammad, sipping tea and fiddling with his Glock pistol.

Iraq’s military launches an offensive to retake Nineveh province from Islamic State, beginning a long march through its countryside. Mosul is the capital of the northern province.PHOTO: YUNUS KELES/ANADOLU AGENCY/GETTY IMAGES


Iraqi forces seize the Qayara air base, 50 miles south of Mosul. The base is seen as a major staging ground for the coming offensive to retake the city. Pictured: Qayara air base in August.PHOTO: ASSOCIATED PRESS

The rivalries are exacerbated by a common practice in the Iraqi army of flying religious flags often associated with Shiite Islam from their vehicles, even when operating in predominantly Sunni areas.

During the fight for Ramadi, Iraqi troops raised both the Iraqi flag and one of the religious flags over government buildings they recaptured from Islamic State.

Sunnis have long complained of disenfranchisement under the Shiite-dominated government, something that is believed to have contributed to support for religious extremism and the rise of Islamic State.

“Is it the Iraqi army or is it the Iranian army?” said Gen. Barzani, who also worried that Iran-backed Shiite militias had become part of Iraqi units in the area. “There are a lot of cars with their slogans and flags,” he said.

Though there are no comprehensive tallies of the number of Islamic State fighters left in Mosul, the top American general in Iraq, Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend, estimated in September that 3,000 to 4,500 men were likely still in the city.

The U.S. has approximately 5,000 troops supporting their Iraqi counterparts. Some of those are special operations forces, a handful of whom pushed toward the front with the Peshmerga. Warrant Officer Muhammad said both American and Canadian special operations forces were on the ground calling in airstrikes.

The Kurdish front is about 30 miles east of Mosul, near the town of Khazer and the village of Badana Kebira.

Fires burned all day Tuesday along the main road in Badana Kebira, all of them set by Kurdish fighters to strip knee-high grass that could hide roadside bombs. The road links Erbil, the Kurdish regional capital, with Mosul, and every hundred feet an improvised explosive device—often old artillery shells with protruding wires—sat near the charred grass waiting for bomb disposal experts to collect them. Peshmerga teams unearthed and disarmed the devices, a painstaking process and one of the reasons for the slowed offensive.

“Maybe the fire will even make them go off,” Warrant Officer Muhammad said.

“Every attack is like that. You take an objective then you go back and clear it,” said Warrant Officer Muhammad, who said the Kurds’ tactic was to sweep into a handful of villages quickly using side roads rather than approach slowly on main roads.

But that left the highway booby-trapped and allowed Islamic State snipers and mortar units to harass the Kurdish fighters and prevent easy movement in areas they seized Monday.

Capt. Davis said upwards of 10,000 Kurdish fighters and about 18,000 Iraqi security forces are involved in the campaign to retake Mosul, in addition to a few thousand Iraqi federal police. Kurdish forces are moving on the city from the east from two angles and Iraqi security forces are encroaching on the city from two other angles in the south and southeast. Islamic State holds the territory west of Mosul and controls the highway running from the city to Tal Afar.

Elsewhere, Iraqi forces reported they were advancing toward the district of Hamdaniya, about 25 miles southeast of the center of Mosul.

“Security forces on all axes are advancing according to the set plan,” said Brig. Gen. Yahya Rasool, the spokesman for Iraq’s joint operations command, which is overseeing the offensive to reclaim Mosul. The city was captured by Islamic State fighters in June 2014 in a lightning advance that convulsed Iraq and the rest of the region.

The Pentagon hasn’t seen fighters or civilians flow out of Mosul in any significant numbers since the campaign began Monday. “What you’re not seeing is a mass exodus of civilians and that’s because they’re being forcibly held there,” Capt. Davis said.

As the campaign kicked off, Islamic State lit so-called “obscuration fires,” burning oil, tires and other substances in massive pits to cloud the air with black smoke and make it more difficult for the coalition to hit targets in airstrikes, he said.

Meanwhile, tensions also simmered Tuesday over Turkey’s involvement in the operation.

Turkey’s Foreign Ministry said an official delegation from Baghdad would travel to the Turkish capital Ankara this week to address political friction that has sparked protests for two consecutive days in Iraq’s capital.

The demonstrators, supporters of the powerful Iraqi Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, oppose the role of Turkey in the Mosul campaign. They accuse predominantly Sunni Turkey of sympathizing with Islamic State.

Sunni tribal fighters in Iraq who have been recruited by Mosul’s former governor and trained by the Turkish military are expected to be part of the ground force deployed to capture Mosul’s urban center.

The U.S.-led coalition has approved the use of Turkish forces as part of the continuing air operations in support of the ground invasion, Prime Minister Binali Yildirim said Tuesday. The Turkish air force hasn’t yet played a role in Mosul, however.

At the Pentagon, Capt. Davis said there is no indication that the Turkish-trained Sunni tribal fighters were moving on Mosul.

Write to Ben Kesling at benjamin.kesling@wsj.com and Paul Sonne atpaul.sonne@wsj.com


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