After six months of hard fighting, the embattled northern Iraqi town of Mosul this week assumed the guise of a showcase for international propaganda. Permits were handed out to an army of TV and news crews rolling up from near and far. They attached themselves to the Iraqi army’s elite Counterterrorism Service and Federal Police Force closing in on the Old City, and showed the world the hellish conditions of the civilians still left in the last corner of the Islamic State’s Iraqi stronghold.
None of the footage showed US flags or evidence of an American combat presence. The Iraqi army was solely credited with defeating the ISIS conquerors of Mosul. American elite troops and the US officers running the show were nowhere to be seen.
This show accompanied the highly visible visit to Washington of Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi and his talks Monday, March 27, with US President Donald Trump at the White House. However, not a word was released about Trump’s conditions for continued US support of Iraq’s struggle to evict ISIS and its post-war future. Abadi was allowed to preserve his image as hero of the moment.
As DEBKA Weekly 748 first revealed on March 17, the US president told Abadi he must dissolve the Shiite militias, grant self-rule to Iraq’s Assyrian, Yazdi and Turkman minorities and keep Baghdad’s hands off the Kurdish oil center of Kirkuk. This part of the conversation remained under both their hats.
The propaganda campaign launched this week paved the way for events still to come.
1. After Mosul is fully liberated, the Trump plans to stage a special publicity campaign to highlight the American forces’ role in the victory and chalk it up as a success story for his administration.
2. It was initially estimated that the Old City of Mosul could be captured without too many civilian casualties, an estimate the Islamic State brutally nullified by using the roughly half-a-million civilians still trapped there as human shields. This lesson showed that ISIS can’t be beaten without an appalling expenditure of human life in collateral damage. In Mosul, hundreds of Iraqi civilians died, including women and children, when their shelters were hit by US-led coalition air strikes.
(The Russian air strikes over Syrian towns also exact civilian casualties, although in much smaller numbers than those caused by the bombing of Mosul.).
3. The horror scenes in Mosul may encourage victims of ISIS rule in Syrian towns and other parts of Iraq to flee, if they are can’t rise up against their tormentors, before they are forced to die as human shields. Hundreds of thousands fled Mosul and saved their lives – at the sacrifice of their homes and possessions.
5. The Trump administration – and most of all, the Pentagon and US armed forces – is depicting the Mosul offensive as winding down to its final stages, before going after ISIS in Syria and its de facto capital of Raqqa. This is to avoid the impression of large-scale US forces entangled simultaneously in two Middle East wars.
6. For that reason, the Pentagon is chary of disclosing how many American troops are in combat in the Middle East. Official releases make the numbers look like a trickle. This week, a US defense official reported that two companies of the US Army’s 82 Airborne Division are being deployed to bolster security in Iraq or Syria, at the request from Baghdad of the top American commander of the war on ISIS.
Only a handful of White House and Pentagon officials know exactly how many US troops are fighting on the Mosul and Raqqa fronts. Our military sources estimate that between 4,000 and 5,000 are in active combat and a similar number is on call for departure to the two warfronts – amounting to a total of some 13,000 t0 15,000 troops.
DEBKA Weekly’s military sources report that, in the past fortnight, 2,000 soldiers, mainly members of the US Army’s 82nd Airborne Division, were flown to the Middle East and split up three ways between reinforcements for Mosul, deployment for the Raqqa operation and postings to US bases around Yemen for anti-terror operations against Yemen-based Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) forces. The third deployment was coordinated with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
Trump can’t expect to avoid a fight on Capitol Hill over his decision to put substantial American boots on the ground in Syria and Iraq without asking Congress for permission. His adversaries put his slightest move under a microscope – especially after the defeat of his medical health care bill. And so the US military buildup Trump has ordered in the Middle East will no doubt touch off the next blast of criticism against him.