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Iraq Concentrates on Taking Back Territory from Militants

  • Mohamed Elshinnawi

FILE - Iraqi security forces celebrate as they hold a flag of the Islamic State group they captured in Ramadi, Iraq.

FILE - Iraqi security forces celebrate as they hold a flag of the Islamic State group they captured in Ramadi, Iraq.

Intensified U.S. airstrikes, U.S. military advisors, and more than a year of U.S. training of Iraqi soldiers appears to be paying off. Iraqi forces supported by coalition airstrikes retook the western city of Ramadi in December, the latest sign that Iraq's war against so-called Islamic State militants is gaining momentum.

Iraqi Ambassador to the United States Lukman Faily tells VOA Iraqi forces will focus on retaking Mosul after completely recapturing Ramadi from the Islamic State group.

Faily said that like the situation in Ramadi, the battle for Mosul is an Iraqi fight and not one for foreign forces.

"We have not asked the United States for troops and there was clear agreement from both capitals that the fight should be led by the Iraqis," Faily said. “We don't need boots on the ground or combat forces."

Watch Ambassador Faily's interview with VOA:

Faily said Iraqis have been grateful for cooperation from the U.S.-led coalition, but he said more is needed to complete the job.

One of the toughest challenges in the battle to liberate Mosul is to minimize the loss of civilian lives, especally given that IS fighters are mixed in with the local community.

“We have the responsibility for the protection of people in Mosul; we know that ISIS is using human shields in towns and cities, so we need a lot of homework to reduce collateral casualties.”

Faily added that there is a crucial need to get the backing of local tribes in Mosul by making sure they are part of the planning and execution of the military operation, and the stabilization thereafter. He said it is crucial to expediate the training of the Iraqi army to liberate Mosul. The United States and its coalition partners are active in training and planning for the battles to come.

“The reason we need new trainers or additional trainers is because that’s really the next step in generating the amount of combat power needed to liberate Mosul,” says Colonel Steve Warren, the spokesman for the U.S. military in Baghdad.

Mosul, Iraq

Mosul, Iraq

Economic challenge

The Iraqi ambassador acknowledged although his country’s first priority is to uproot IS, it faces widespread corruption and dwindling financial resources.

“We have major economic challenges because of oil prices decline over the past 18 months, which means we have to be more efficient on how to use resources, and we need tremendous amount of economic support.” Faily said.

Oil revenues have allowed the Baghdad government to pay salaries and keep the country going with benefits like food rations. But with oil prices dipping around $30 a barrel, the government has far less money to spend and less leverage as well.

Faily said the government is launching a campaign against corruption, but admitted it is not an easy fight and will take a sustainable effort to combat a culture in which bribes and kickbacks are common, hindering economic development and stability.

Future challenges

Faily said the anti-IS struggle is further fracturing the country by creating a variety of competing factions. Iraq has been the scene of sectarian strife, especially between Sunnis and Shiites, since the U.S. invasion toppled Saddam Hussein in 2003.

One the key faction is the Kurds in northern Iraq. Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga forces have been successful at fighting IS, providing troops to supplement the U.S.-led coalition's airstrikes.

But with that success has come a push for independence. Massoud Barzani, leader of the Iraqi Kurdistan Region, believes there will never be a better chance for the Kurds to break away from Iraq.

"The time has come and the situation is now suitable for the Kurdish people to make a decision through a referendum on their fate," Barzani said in a recent statement.

Faily said any hopes for an independent Kurdish state will hinder Iraq's development and stability. He insists the country can remain unified.

“We need sustainable development in politics, security and to learn how to handover to local authorities and work aggressively to have social and political harmony," he says.

The United States has said it wants the Kurds to remain part of Iraq.