Commander of the Iraqi Golden Division, Major General Fazil Barwari, speaking with Rudaw in Mosul on Thursday. Photo: Rudaw video
Iraq’s elite Golden Division, trained in urban warfare, is the only force with the skills needed to take on ISIS in the streets of Mosul, the leader of the division, Major General Fazil Barwari, told Rudaw. Because of the nature of the street fight and the presence of civilians, the battle for the city is moving slower than first hoped, he said. But he remains confident they will ultimately be victorious.
He also said he has knowledge of the location of ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and has shared this information with the American forces.
Barwari is credited with forming Iraq’s strongest military division which is currently leading the operation to eject ISIS from Iraq. His forces have liberated the towns of Tikrit, Rumadi, Fallujah, and Hit from ISIS. Barwari was commander of the Operation Knight's Charge (Saulat al-Fursan) to free the Iraqi city of Basra from the Mahdi Army.
Rudaw: Who made the decision to launch the Mosul offensive?
Fazil Barwari: It was a decision made by the Iraqi government and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). In the beginning, the Americans predicted that the war would last 6 to 8 months. We are now in the midst of the offensive, and have so far retaken 40 neighborhoods left of the city. Our mission will be accomplished when we have liberated the left side of the city. The forces sweeping through Qayyara and Tal Afar are tasked with liberating the right side of the city.
The ISIS militants confronting us in Mosul are not as fierce as those we countered in Ramadi who fought to the death. There were hiding out in houses, continuing to fight even when they were injured. They didn’t surrender. But the story is different in Mosul where their strong asset is car bombs driven by well-trained youngsters. We have thus far destroyed 275 car bombs in the area designated to us alone, whereas they launched only 27 car bombs in Ramadi.
What did the Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi tell you before the commencement of the offensive?
The agreement between Abadi and President Barzani was that the Iraqi forces would advance from Khazir, Mosul Dam and Nawaran fronts. It is the first time in history where the Kurdish Peshmerga and the Iraqi army are fighting ISIS on the same front. Although Abadi is commander of the Iraqi armed forces, he is not well-versed in military matters. He has a PhD and is a politician. However, he seeks advice before making military decisions. This is how he makes decisions.
Did you anticipate that the Mosul offensive would last 6 months?
Our prediction was that we would be able to recapture Mosul in two months, assuming that people would flee the city enabling us to hit ISIS positions easier. But this didn’t turn out to be the case. People couldn’t flee the city. That is why only our forces entered the city, and now our priority in engaging with ISIS is protecting civilians. Other forces did not enter the city for they are not as well-trained in urban warfare as the Golden Division. Urban war is not easy. We couldn’t move tanks and artillery into the city, and there wasn’t enough manpower to advance into the city on all fronts.
By the time Mosul is liberated, the Golden Division troops will all be killed. This is the argument some people are making. What is your take on this?
We have an academy designed to graduate warriors who get to see their families once in four months during their stay there. We lost the lives of many soldiers in our offensive to liberate Ramadi. But we eventually defeated ISIS and retook the town. We have been victorious in our battles to recapture Fallujah, Hit, and Tikrit. And we are still alive.
Your engagement was better in Anbar than it is now in Mosul. Why is that so?
Not all my forces are engaged with the Mosul offensive. Five of my regiments are based in Baghdad, protecting the capital. In addition, one of my regiments is based in Karbala, one in Ramadi, one in Hila. Only two of my regiments are engaged with the offensive to liberate Mosul, and they are fighting well. The other two divisions have five regiments each.
Do you fear that the Golden Division might be destroyed in Mosul?
ISIS is fighting an all-out war in Mosul. Over 2,000 ISIS militants have been killed so far. We found over 20 ISIS dead bodies in a sewage pipe alone. The ISIS militants were thought to number around 6,000. Now only 3,000 of them are left. But these numbers are not important. We used only 1,000 soldiers in our initial push into Mosul. ISIS was reported to have said that black devils had entered the city. Our uniforms and Humvees are black.
Reports indicate that many of your Humvees have been destroyed in the battle to retake Mosul and that you have been supplied with new ones?
I brought 100 Humvees for the Mosul offensive; we were then sent another 50. We have enough ammunition that could last us two years. Most of our fatalities and damage were incurred in pushing back the ISIS attack to retake Gogjali. We defeated them and repelled their attack.
How much would a new recruit cost you until he becomes a fighter in the end?
They go through many phases. Out of 1,000, normally 100 can make it to the end. 10,000 untrained soldiers are equivalent to 100 Golden Division soldiers. The cost of graduating a Golden Division soldier is $27,000, which includes training, uniform, and weapons.
What is the number of Kurds within the Golden Division?
In the beginning, it was 30%. But this rate lowered dramatically. It is currently around 5%. Many of them returned to the Kurdistan Region to fight alongside the Peshmerga when ISIS emerged in the region.
ISIS has modern weapons. Where do you think they have gotten them from?
They have gotten some of them from Syria. They got most of their weapons in Iraq, especially in Beiji which was home to Iraq’s biggest arsenal. This is aside from the weapons abandoned by several Iraqi divisions when ISIS seized control of Mosul. ISIS has been fighting us using Iraqi weapons so far.
You were previously quoted saying that Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was in Bahaj. Where is the self-proclaimed caliph of ISIS now?
According to our information, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is not in Mosul. He, accompanied by 6 people, has fled the city. One of those is a Kurd from Halabja, called Abu-Talaat. He is nearly 50 and was previously a preacher. They are no longer in Bahaj. They are now in Mosul’s Jazeera, area which is very hilly. He is hiding out there.
The United States government has offered a $25 million reward for information about Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s whereabouts. Why don’t you tell them?
I have informed the Americans of his whereabouts. They can look for him in Mosul’s Jazeera region which is very hilly. He can hide out there and never be found.
Are there any Kurds within ISIS now?
Yes, there are still many Kurds within ISIS, which kills Kurdish prisoners using its Kurdish fighters. We have their names.
What happened to the Peshmerga who were taken prisoners by ISIS?
Unfortunately they have killed all of them. This is according to our information, information we have obtained from the ISIS prisons we have captured, and people living in the region.
When do you think Mosul will be liberated?
I promise you that people can go to Mosul strolling through its streets in two months. The left side of the city is close to being completely liberated. We are less than 3 kilometers away from the city’s Iron Bridge, also called the Old Bridge.
Before the Mosul offensive was launched, there were speculations that the people of the city would rise up against ISIS upon arrival of the Iraqi army. This didn’t turn out to be the case. Why?
The Sheikhs from Mosul told us the same. They told us that people will rise up against ISIS whenever the Iraqi army approaches the outskirts of the city. But we are now in Mosul downtown, and no one has risen up against ISIS yet. However, they are happy about our presence there and our operation to end ISIS’ rule. They give us useful information. But ISIS has terrified the people. Their terror of ISIS is worse than that of Saddam Hussein.
There is information that the United States was unhappy that Iraq blocked all escape routes from ISIS. Why were all the routes blocked?
No, not all the routes are closed. The routes between Iraq and Syria are open, enabling them to travel. [The area] is big. You need more than 10 divisions to recapture it. According to our information, they have received new reinforcements from Syria.