US Tigris Bridge Plan for Mosul Offensive Sparks Baghdad-Kurdish Tug-o’-War
On a surprise visit to Baghdad on July 11, US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter announced a more than 10 percent boost of American troops deployed to Iraq, in readiness for the offensive to capture Mosul from two years of Islamic State occupation. This raises the total to 4,647 – over 5,000, if temporary US deployments and special operations units are counted in.
Many of the supplementary arrivals are to be based at an airbase at Qayarah that was captured on July 9 and is being converted into the logistical hub of the forthcoming Mosul offensive, 60 kilometer to the south.
However, according to DEBKA Weekly’s military and intelligence sources, this announcement was but a smokescreen laid down for Carter’s main mission, which was to seek from Iraqi government and military officials approval of a deal for American engineers to place bridges across the Tigris River in the north that will be crossed by Iraqi and Kurdish Peshmerga forces for attacking Mosul.
The Tigris is only 80 to 200 meters wide. ISIS made sure to blow up all the bridges which once spanned it. An assault force would only be able to surprise the jihadis by reaching into the city with the help of pontoons.
Our sources report that the defense secretary’s trip to Iraq was not planned, but hurriedly set up after the weekend capture of the Qayarah base – just 3 kilometers from the Tigris – opened up the option of transferring mobile military bridges to a point close to Mosul.
This will be a complicated and expensive project. But before the air base was captured, it was barely feasible. US military planners had concluded that the bridges and the equipment needed for installing them would have to be delivered by sea to the southern Iraqi port of Basra and trucked about 950 kilometers north to the Tigris.
Even though the components can now be flown in by air to Qayarah, setting it up is no mean task for four reasons:
1. Defense Secretary Carter needs the approval of Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s government, for which he must offer a guarantee that the bridges would serve exclusively for placing Mosul under siege, and no other military purpose.
2. The thorny issue of who is to be in charge of operating the bridges and who will be authorized to decide when to dismantle or move them to other points on the river remains to be settled. Carter told the Iraqis that these decisions would rest with US officers in the arena. Baghdad has yet to concede this.
3. The Iraqi government has demanded Carter’s commitment not to hand over any bridges or related equipment to the Kurdish Peshmerga forces participating in the battle for Mosul. Baghdad also wants Kurdish use of the bridges to be subject to central government consent.
4. The Kurdish autonomous government in Irbil has countered that the transfer of bridge sections through its territory would be barred until Kurdish forces were guaranteed freedom of movement on the bridges.