After declaring victory in the nine-month battle to oust the Islamic State group from Mosul, the Iraqi security forces have, “a little bit of breathing room to concentrate on the rest of the country and get on with the campaign of eliminating ISIS in Iraq,” the top Marine officer in Iraq said.
Marine Corps Times talked to Brig. Gen. Robert “G-Man” Sofge recently about what happens after Mosul and how U.S. forces helped Iraqi forces achieve their most important victory to date. Sofge is currently the director of the Combined Joint Operations Center in Baghdad.
After declaring victory in the nine-month battle to oust the Islamic State group from Mosul the Iraqi security forces have “a little bit of breathing room to concentrate on the rest of the country and get on with the campaign of eliminating ISIS in Iraq,” the top Marine officer in Iraq said.
Marine Corps Times talked to Brig. Gen. Robert “G-Man” Sofge recently about what happens after Mosul and how U.S. forces helped Iraqi forces achieve their most important victory to date. Sofge is currently the director of the Combined Joint Operations Center in Baghdad. Excerpts of the interview, edited for clarity and space.
Q: What is next in the fight against ISIS in Iraq?
ISIS is in Tal Afar; ISIS remains in the western desert and certainly remains in the Hawija pocket — north of Baghdad and south of Mosul. Where the Iraqis go on a campaign, I think, is to be determined at this point.
But wherever they go, we’ll go with them and work to annihilate ISIS by, with and through the Iraqi forces, who performed brilliantly Mosul in a tough, tough fight.
Q: We’ve heard reports that Iraq’s elite Counter Terrorism Service suffered 40 percent casualties during the battle for Mosul. Do have any information about how many members of the CTS were killed and wounded?
I can’t talk to it off the cuff. They are a fine fighting force and they were very brave and took a significant number of casualties — as did the federal police and so did the Iraqi army. All pieces of the Iraqi security forces were engaged in different parts of this battle. I can’t speak specifically to the numbers.
Q: Will the Counter Terrorism Service need to rest and regroup before the next major battle?
I think all of the forces are understandably going to have to reset briefly after the tough fight in Mosul. I think what we’ll see in the weeks ahead is that kind of behavior as they restock their ammo, take stock of where they are physically with manpower, repair their vehicles and replenish their fuel stocks for the next stop on the campaign.
Q: How are efforts to clear Mosul of mines and booby traps proceeding?
There’s a lot of that going on. The city has been liberated, but that doesn’t mean that every IED has been found or taken care of. In one vignette, just recently, I believe it was the Iraqi army back clearing found six IEDs in one house. There was even an IED found underneath a baby’s crib.
This kind of back-clearance will be slow and thorough. It’s already started with the forces that are there, but the government of Iraq — my understanding — is going to bring more forces to bear to help with that clearance to make the city safe for the people of Mosul.
Q: The U.S. military has faced some criticism for a spike in civilian casualties in Mosul. Did the coalition change any policies or rules of engagement in the latter months of the fight to make it easier launch air and artillery strikes?
Our process for strikes has remained the same and is as stringent as it has always been. We do everything in our power to avoid civilian casualties while precisely and effectively killing the enemy. I can speak with some authority: There was no change in the rules or the very strict criteria required to release ordnance in this country. The idea that we’ve loosened the ROE in order to more aggressively fight the enemy is not an accurate statement. There have been a couple of unfortunate incidents, but zero civilian casualties is our goal each and every day. We haven’t loosened that up in any way, shape or form.
Q: What steps did the U.S. take to avoid inflicting civilian casualties in Mosul?
First of all: We’ve got to have a positive identification on a target or we’re not going to strike. Second of all: The strike has to be proportional to the threat. We also do collateral damage estimates on what might be damaged in and around this strike if we execute it. Finally, we run it through the team to make sure we’re in complete compliance with our rules of engagement and the laws of armed conflict. Once all of that is satisfied, we go to the government of Iraq to seek their permission for this strike.
Q: As ISIS was pushed back in Mosul, did it become harder for U.S. air and artillery support to avoid hitting civilians?
It was challenging to employ that amount of firepower in that small of a space. We dialed it back and kept dialing it back until eventually we weren’t using any aircraft to strike, only direct fire weapons. And then eventually direct fire weapons were, frankly, too powerful to fight in those closed quarters. It became those last, terrible yards for the Iraqi security forces to really go in by hand. Brutal fighting.