Families fleeing the fighting in Mosul stop at a Kurdish checkpoint. Photo: AFP
BAGHDAD, Iraq – Because of their long experience in guerrilla warfare, the Kurdish Peshmerga forces are the only bulwark that can thwart the sweep of Islamic militants further across Iraq, according to a former Iraqi army officer.
Iraq’s Shiite-led government has been in shock since days ago losing control of the country’s second-largest city, Mosul in the northwest, to Sunni jihadists from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).
All of this year, the government has been unsuccessfully battling al-Qaeda and its splinter ISIS, in three other provinces, Diyala, Salahaddin and Anbar.
The former Iraqi officer, who is now a security analyst, said the Islamic fighters are taking shelter in civilian areas, where the army cannot confront them openly.
“To regain control and minimize civilian casualties, the government must stage urban warfare with mechanized infantry squads in residential neighborhoods,” said the former officer, who was speaking in Baghdad, and did not want his name used.
He said that some Iraqi officials were right in “seeking the help of Peshmerga forces in their war on terrorists, because of their experience, expertise and knowledge of urban warfare.”
He added that the Peshmerga forces, which are controlled by the autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in northern Iraq, are well suited to confront the jihadist advance because of their “knowledge of the area’s geography, as well as their proximity to them.”
The fall of Mosul came just days after Iraq took delivery of its first F-16 fighter plane from the United States. Iraq’s Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki had appealed for the fighters -- and other equipment that Washington is delivering under a multibillion dollar deal -- to crush the insurgents.
But the security expert said that air power cannot bring the militants to heel.
“Relying on the air force and setting siege to cities in order to crack down on militants is not only inefficient, it has widened the reach of ISIS to include the three provinces,” he said.
He added that the ISIS sweep through Mosul and other northwestern territories “proves that the military tactics of the Iraqi security agencies are wrong, ineffective and have not limited the movement of ISIS.”
Mosul in Nineveh province, 400 km north of Baghdad, has been gripped in fear and chaos since Iraqi forces largely abandoned their positions, left behind their weapons, tore off their uniforms and disappeared in the face of an ISIS advance.
“Thousands of people in Mosul are trying to flee from the city toward either Baghdad or Kurdistan,” said Mohammed al-Shammari, 35, a displaced resident of Mosul who escaped to Baghdad. “The majority need housing and immediate resettlement.”
Al-Shammari warned of a humanitarian catastrophe, “Unless the government responds to the human waves fleeing from Mosul to escape the ISIS.”
Iraq’s Parliament Speaker Osama al-Nujaifi called the fall of Mosul a foreign invasion by fighters of different nationalities.
“There is support for these groups, but currently we must focus on defeating them and putting the country on the path of recovery. After that, we can investigate the source of their support,” said Nujaifi, referring to suspicions that the Sunni insurgents enjoy some local support.
Maliki, the embattled prime minister who is opposed by the country’s Sunnis, Kurds and many fellow Shiite parties, urged “everyone who can carry a gun" to start resisting against "terrorists."
Many Iraqis have been left wondering how their army, equipped with heavy weapons, just fell apart before a guerrilla force with light weaponry, giving up without much of a fight.
But in Mosul, more anger was vented at Maliki’s government than at the vicious militants, whose rapid advances in the city have raised questions about the competence of an army long supported and trained by the United States.