Iraqi Special Forces Spread Thin By Mosul Battle

Nov 20, 2016
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For a month, Iraqi forces have been pressing an offensive against ISIS in the city of Mosul. As NPR's Alice Fordham reports, one elite group is bearing much of that burden.

ALICE FORDHAM, BYLINE: As an array of Iraqi security forces converge on Mosul, some are moving faster than others. Meet the Iraqi Special Operations Forces.

(SOUNDBITE OF TRUCK ENGINES)

FORDHAM: At one of their bases, three black Humvees full of men in black uniforms kick up a cloud of dust as they head to the front.

(SOUNDBITE OF FOOTSTEPS)

FORDHAM: Inside is their commander Major General Maan al Saadi.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken).

FORDHAM: There's not a speck of dust on his black boots - quite an achievement round here. Sitting very upright on a red and gold couch, he lists the neighborhoods of Mosul his men have taken.

MAAN AL SAADI: (Foreign language spoken).

FORDHAM: Here in Mosul, his men have been not just the tip of the spear for the Iraqi forces, but the dominant group fighting block by block in the city. The special forces weren't designed for ground battles, but Saadi says in 2014, that changed when ISIS reared up.

AL SAADI: (Through interpreter) Iraq's provinces began to fall one after the other, so it was inevitable that the elite forces in Iraq would step in.

FORDHAM: He's being polite. The Iraqi army didn't do a great job. Someone had to fill in the gap. Saadi lists a few reasons his men are good.

AL SAADI: (Through interpreter) The primary reason is the counterterrorism unit was not politicized and did not act in a sectarian way. It dealt with all people as Iraqis.

FORDHAM: Many Sunni Iraqis complained in 2014 that the army was dominated by the country's Shiite majority and treated Sunnis badly. Another reason the special forces are strong is Uncle Sam.

AL SAADI: (Through interpreter) The level of training is superior. The fighting skills are better because the men received their training at an American base.

FORDHAM: In 2011, U.S. combat forces withdrew from Iraq, but not a small team who kept quietly working with the special forces. So now...

AL SAADI: (Through interpreter) This is the only force capable of standing in the face of the enemy.

FORDHAM: He does say the Iraqi army has now improved, but not enough that his men can step back. I Skype with retired American Lieutenant General Mick Bednarek, who oversaw much of the U.S. training in Iraq. He says the special forces are doing a great job.

MICK BEDNAREK: The disadvantage is that's not what they were trained to do.

FORDHAM: They're trained to take out big, bad guys, like ISIS leaders.

BEDNAREK: Not to be slugging it out day to day and fighting, you know, light infantry and regular battles.

FORDHAM: For the moment, they are likely to keep leading.

BEDNAREK: And they are proud, proud warriors.

FORDHAM: But inevitably, some are dying, and these highly trained fighters are hard to replace. Iraq's Special Forces are an essential, but very finite resource. Alice Fordham, NPR News, Northern Iraq. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.