Baghdad Doesn’t Want You to Know How Many of Its Soldiers Are Dying
Urban warfare exacts a terrible toll
by SÉBASTIEN ROBLIN
On Dec. 1, 2016, the United Nations Assistance Mission to Iraq reported that 1,959 Iraqi Security Forces troops had died in combat during the month of November, including army, police on combat operations, Kurdish Peshmerga and other allied militias.
The casualty report came six weeks after Iraq launched an operation aimed at liberating Mosul from Islamic State.
On Dec. 2, the Iraqi Joints Operations Command angrily refuted the United Nations’ claim. “This figure is not accurate and much exaggerated,” the command stated. However, JOC refused to offer casualty figures of its own, claiming it wasn’t obligated to do so — and that such figures would only boost Islamic State’s morale.
By Dec. 3, 2016, UNAMI backtracked, sort of. Amid the bureaucratic squabbling, one thing is obvious. Baghdad doesn’t want anyone to know how many of its troops are dying in the war against ISIS.
“UNAMI acknowledges that the military figures were largely unverified,” the U.N. mission stated in response to Iraq’s protest. “Owing to the fact that places where conflict is taking place, and where military casualties are likely to arise, are inaccessible and there are few reliable, independent sources available by which statistics can be verified, UNAMI has been relying on a variety of sources, including open sources, to compile military casualty statistics.”
But it’s Baghdad’s fault that the United Nations can’t relay verifiable casualty statistics, UNAMI pointed out. “Previous requests by the mission to the relevant government ministries for verification of military casualty figures have not received a response.”
Now, Joint Operations Command didn’t object to the United Nations’ casualty report for October 2016, which counted 672 fatalities and 353 wounded, just a third of November’s figures.
For their part, the Kurdish Peshmerga militias claimed in December 2016 that they had lost 1,600 soldiers killed in action since 2014. The Peshmerga are helping cordon the northern approaches to Mosul, but aren’t involved in the street fighting itself.
The figures for civilian casualties are also alarming. The U.N. report counted 926 Iraqi civilians killed and 930 wounded in November 2016, down from 1,120 killed and 1,005 wounded in October. Additionally, 52 foreigners were killed in attacks.
UNAMI has stood by the figures, claiming they are “subjected to a rigorous methodology based on a range of sources, triangulation of sources and assessment of credibility, among other things.”
Despite Baghdad’s protestations, the United Nations’ figures seem likely to be far below the true total for recent Iraq war casualties. “The mission’s methodology is conservative, in that civilian casualty figures do not include many of the reports received by the mission that do not meet verification criteria, and hence should be considered as minimums,” UNAMI explained.
The United Nations reported the highest number of deaths in Baghdad province, rather than in Nineveh province where the siege of Mosul is taking place. It’s conceivable that better reporting is possible around Baghdad because ISIS isn’t in control there, meaning that additional casualties are going unreported in the area around Mosul.
Another anomaly is the ratio of wounded to killed. Typically in current wars, there are three or four injuries for every fatality. Weirdly, UNAMI has reported more dead than wounded. The U.N. figures likely reflect a bias against reporting injuries, implying that many wounded are going unreported.
The Iraqi government claimed “inaccurate” casualty figures could hearten ISIS fighters in Mosul. The same flawed rationale seems to explain Baghdad’s December 2016 policy banning reporters from embedding with Iraqi forces.
However, there may be a different, even more dispiriting explanation.
Ever since intellectual Bernard Henri-Levi announced he was filming a documentary in Mosul, rumors circulated in Iraqi circles that the presence of the French Jew meant that Israel supported the Iraqi government. Baghdad responded by cracking down on frontline reporters.
The controversy over casualty-reporting doesn’t change the reality on the ground. The battle for Mosul is bleeding Iraq’s security forces — and the local populace.
The first few weeks of the Mosul campaign were fairly easy for Iraqi ground forces, as they slowly closed on the city and liberated lightly-defended outlying towns.
Mosul itself represents a greater military challenge for the attackers. Its narrow, crowded streets are perfect for ambushes. The presence of hundreds of thousands of civilians limits Iraqi forces’ ability to bring to bear their heaviest firepower.
On Nov. 8, 2016, CNN reporters Arwa Damon and Brice Laine captured the nightmarish reality of close urban fighting in Mosul.
One of ISIS’s signature tactics is to hide armored suicide cars in narrow alleys perpendicular to advancing coalition forces and attack without warning. There were some 632 suicide car-bomb attacks in Mosul in November alone.
Additionally, ISIS fighters have littered major roads with improved explosive devices — and have booby-trapped cars and houses. ISIS dug tunnels to connect fortified outposts.
To advance in such an unforgiving environment demands a high level of tactical skill and morale. As a result, most Iraqi offensive operations in Mosul have been spearheaded by just one unit — the 10,000-man Golden Division.
Also known as the 1st Special Operations Brigade, the Golden Division is an elite unit that U.S. personnel trained in counterterrorism operations. Even fighting in a conventional role, the Golden Division and other Iraqi Special Operations Forces units have proved to be Iraq’s only truly reliable formations.
The Golden Division and other SOF units attack, while regular army units trail behind them to maintain defensive cordons.
The problem is, the constant fighting is bleeding dry the Golden Division. A Pentagon source told Politico that Iraqi Special Operations Forces “are suffering upwards of 50-percent casualties.”
“The division could become combat ineffective in a little over a month, and perhaps even sooner,” the source continued.
It’s an open question whether the Iraqi government will be able to bridge the deep divisions between Sunni, Shia and Kurdish troops once the battle for Mosul finally ends. There’s reason to worry that, if the Golden Division disintegrates under the strain of liberating Mosul, Baghdad will have sacrificed the only uncorrupt military force holding together the fragile, multi-ethnic state.
To be sure, the Golden Division is trading away its soldiers lives in order to protect the estimated 1.5 million civilians who are still trapped in Mosul. Iraqi and allied forces have so far mostly refrained from the indiscriminate deployment of heavy artillery and air power in Mosul — even when restraint cost some Iraqi troops’ their lives.
Which is not to say coalition air power hasn’t killed civilians in Mosul. Eight civilians reportedly died in an air strike on Nov. 8, 2016. A Human Rights Watch claimed a separate coalition air strike killed 19 civilians.
On Dec. 29, U.S. Central Command admitted that it may have caused civilian deaths when targeted the parking garage of hospital after it observed an ISIS van entering the garage.
Officially, CENTCOM has copped to accidentally killing 173 civilians in Iraq since 2014, although the true total is likely higher.
ISIS has shown no such compassion or regret. Militants in Mosul have killed civilians they’ve caught attempting to flee. Islamic State’s mortars have relentlessly bombarded neighborhoods after Iraqi troops liberated them.
In mid-December 2016, Iraqi forces paused their offensive in Mosul for two weeks in order to regroup. By the end of 2016, Iraqi troops controlled around a third of Mosul and expected to soon secure the final few miles separating them from the east bank of the Tigris River. The more densely populated western bank of Mosul looms just a few miles away.
Coalition forces have destroyed the five bridges connecting the two riverbanks in order to stem the flow of ISIS reinforcements to the east bank, although this may also have made it more difficult for civilians to evacuate. Meanwhile, ISIS dug in.
Baghdad’s new offensive commenced on Dec. 29, 2016 on multiple fronts. Reportedly, more U.S. Special Forces are now embedded with frontline Iraqi units in order to assist in tactical planning and calling in air strikes. To lower its own casualties, Iraqi troops intend to make more liberal use of air and artillery support — measures which could save military lives at the cost of civilian ones.
Not that Baghdad will likely release figures confirming that unhappy truth.