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As the US looks away from Iraq, elite US-trained operators are still battling the remnants of ISIS

Members of Iraq’s Counter-Terrorism Service in Anbar province during a major assault to retake the city of Fallujah, May 28, 2016.

AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP via Getty Images

  • The US military has been winding down its operations in Iraq after years of battling ISIS.
  • Iraqi special-operations forces are continuing that fight against the remnants of the terrorist group.
  • Those Iraqi forces have been working closely with their US counterparts for nearly 20 years.

At its height after sweeping across Syria and Iraq in 2014, ISIS commanded 40,000 fighters and controlled 8 million people in an area the size of Virginia.

After years of fighting, a US-led international coalition has worn down ISIS’s so-called caliphate, a campaign capped off with the killing of ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in a raid by US Army special operators in 2019.

For the US, large-scale operations against ISIS have ended. There are still US troops in Iraq and Syria under the Combined Joint Task Force-Inherent Resolve, but in December they shifted from direct combat operations to a non-combat mission that advises and assists Iraq’s military.

The Iraqi military is still fighting remnants of the terrorist group that once wreaked havoc in the region and even threatened to topple the Iraqi government.

Nowadays, that fight is a law-enforcement operation as much as it is a military mission, requiring warrants and solid intelligence, but Iraqi commandos are still at the tip of the spear, led by special-operations forces that still have a very close relationship with the US special-operations community.

Iraq’s special operators

Iraq Counter-Terrorism Service in MosulIraqi Counter-Terrorism Service members advance in the Old City of Mosul, July 6, 2017

AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP via Getty Images

Iraqi special-operations forces have a tiered structure, with the Iraqi Counter Terrorism Service (CTS) headquarters on the top, followed by the Counter Terrorism Command (CTC) at the operational level, and finally by the three Iraqi Special Operations Forces (ISOF) brigades on the tactical level.

Importantly, the Iraqi special-operations forces are separate from the Ministry of Defense and Ministry of Interior, giving them more flexibility and credibility as independent actors.

The Iraqi military has other special-operations units, such as the Qwat Khasah, a light infantry special-operations unit based on the US Army’s 75th Ranger Regiment, but the Iraqi Counter Terrorism Service is the national mission force reserved for the most important missions.

When Iraqi forces began operations to recapture Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, in October 2016, CTS units were the first in and struck the final blows in July 2017, after nine months of brutal fighting in which the CTS suffered 40% casualties.

Iraq Counter-Terrorism Service in MosulMembers of Iraq’s Counter-Terrorism Service celebrate with an upside-down ISIS flag in the Old City of Mosul, July 2, 2017.

AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP via Getty Images

The CTS has been trained, equipped, and supported by the US government. US special-operations forces began developing official and unofficial relationships with Iraqi troops still loyal to their government soon after the Iraq War began in 2003, a former US Army Special Forces officer told Insider.

Before the US withdrew from Iraq in 2011, US special operators trained their Iraqi counterparts in a variety of mission sets that the Iraqis brought to bear against ISIS after it emerged in 2014, according to the former officer, who requested anonymity for personal security reasons.

“In reality our fight against ISIS began even before the troop pullout” in 2011, the former officer said.

“As with any organization, ISOF’s capabilities vary by unit. The most capable are battle-hardened and experienced. Their campaign against ISIS, and the battle of Mosul specifically, created lots of lessons-learned that should have become institutional knowledge,” the former Green Beret officer added.

Created in adversity

Iraq Counter Terrorism Services tactical attack controller airstrikeAn Iraqi tactical attack controller, left, from the Counter-Terrorism Services practices calling in an airstrike near Iraq’s Al Asad Air Base, October 19, 2021.

US Army/Staff Sgt. Jose A. Torres Jr.

In the months following the defeat of the Iraqi military in spring 2003, US and Coalition troops started working with Iraqi forces against what was fast becoming a full-blown insurgency.

In November 2003, Green Berets stood up a battalion-size counterterrorism unit with Iraqis from varied ethnic, political, and religious backgrounds.

The rationale behind this inclusivity was to create a unit that could operate anywhere and, more importantly, wouldn’t appear aligned with a specific segment of the Iraqi population. The new unit was able to conduct operations alongside Green Berets. It was successful enough to merit an upgrade.

The first official Iraqi operator training course took place in Jordan the next year, with a mix of American and Jordanian special operators as instructors. In April 2004, it produced the first 100 official Iraqi commandos.

Shortly thereafter, these commandos merged with the battalion-sized unit to create the first Iraqi Special Operations Force Brigade. The unit had direct-action, counterterrorism, intelligence-gathering, and close-target-reconnaissance capabilities and worked closely with US special operators.

US Army medics Iraqi Counter-Terrorism ServiceUS Army medics demonstrate a rapid field trauma assessment for members of the Iraqi Counter-Terrorism Service at a training site near Baghdad, December 20, 2016.

US Army/Capt. Erick Thronson

US Green Berets “trained most of the ISOF, but other units helped too,” though it was not a popular mission among American commandos, the former Green Beret officer said.

With a “never-ending” list of targets and constant pressure from above to conduct operations against them, “staying behind and teaching Iraqis how to shoot rifles or how to clear a room was boring for many,” the former officer said.

“That changed later with ISIS because suddenly FID [foreign internal defense] became a way for units to get a deployment in a war zone,” the former officer added.

Army Green Berets are ideally suited for such missions because of the extensive cultural and language training they receive. That enables them to recruit, train, and advise foreign units — key components of their foreign internal defense mission. FID allows Green Berets to be a true force-multiplier: A small operational detachment can link up and lead hundreds if not thousands of local forces into battle.

Among the many forces that US special-operators have trained, Iraq’s CTS has distinguished itself for its bravery and effectiveness. In 2021, it conducted 404 operations and 431 air-support operations, killed 125 militants, made 303 arrests, and destroyed 334 ISIS hideouts and caves, a spokesman said this month.

Stavros Atlamazoglou is a defense journalist specializing in special operations, a Hellenic Army veteran (national service with the 575th Marine Battalion and Army HQ), and a Johns Hopkins University graduate.

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