ERBIL, Kurdistan Region – When the offensive to free Mosul from two years of control by the Islamic State (ISIS) gets underway – anticipated next month by some accounts -- a rundown Saddam-era airbase south of the city may likely be the springboard for the military operations.
The most concrete indication that the push for Mosul may be around the corner was the reported arrival of hundreds of US troops at the Qayyara airbase, south of Mosul, over the weekend.
“The American troops at Qayyara Airbase are there for advisory purposes,” Jabar Yawar, the Chief of Staff of the Kurdish Peshmerga forces that will be part of the anticipated offensive, told Rudaw, confirming the presence of the American soldiers.
“They are coordinating with local forces, especially Iraqi forces who they will provide with aviation and logistical assistance,” Yawar told Rudaw English. “They will build a base which can provide support for all the forces involved in the Mosul operation.”
The Iraqi Army recaptured the airbase from ISIS in July, a month before the forces pushed ISIS out of the town of Qayyara altogether.
The facility, about 65 kilometers south of Mosul and strategically important because of its proximity to the ISIS stronghold in Iraq, is expected to be refitted to allow US and coalition aircraft to operate from there.
"When the (Iraqi Security Force) is ready to move on in their operations to get after Mosul, we'll be prepared to support that and the airfield will be ready," Lt. Gen. Jeffrey Harrigian told reporters Tuesday at the Pentagon.
“This is something we're working from both the land component perspective with the Iraqis and clearly ensuring that, as we begin to put some of our airplanes in there (Qayyara) in the future, that it's got the capabilities that we need," Harrigian added.
Several US officials, cited by CNN, have said that they expect the operation against Mosul to begin as early as October.
Built as one of Iraq’s “Super-Bases” by the Saddam Hussein regime in the 1970s, Qayyara has been an actor in several military campaigns in Iraq: It played a role in Saddam’s 1980-88 war with Iran and then Iraq’s wars with the United States.
The hundreds of US personnel now busy at the base are there to help the Iraqis refit the base, according to Joel Wing, an Iraq analyst and author of the Musings on Iraq blog.
Speaking to Rudaw English, Wing anticipates the airbase playing at least three major roles in the upcoming operation: logistics, flight base and possibly a launch pad for artillery and rocket fire.
Wing estimates that the base will be stocked full of ammunition, fuel and other supplies before the operation begins. “Once the airfield is repaired it can house aircraft for quick flights to support the attack upon the city,” he said.
The US might also “deploy artillery and rockets there for fire support for the advancing Iraqis. The US Marine Corps already have Firebase Bell outside Makhmour in Nineveh, and Qayyara might serve the same purpose,” he noted. “The US could also decide to place helicopters there as well.” Wing added.
Yawar also suggested that, “The US can monitor the operation of controlling Mosul closely at the airbase and use it as an actual airbase in the future.”
Qayyara is also big enough to host Iraqi aircraft.
In recent years Iraq has taken delivery of advanced Mi-35 and more recently Mi-28 helicopter gunships from Russia. Russia and Iran also delivered sturdy Su-25 ground attack aircraft to Iraq in the last two years to help them fight off the ISIS threat. The aircraft could be taking off from Qayyara for air support to Iraqi forces on the ground, once the Mosul offensive is underway.
During Iraq’s war with Iran Qayyara was “a major asset” to the Iraqis, hosting some of Baghdad’s most sophisticated fighter jets of the time – namely its French-made Dassault Mirage F-1s and Soviet-made MiG-25 Foxbats, Wing said.
In its heyday Qayyara sported two long runways (11,500 and 11,800 feet) – long enough to provide landing and take-off for even the world’s largest aircraft. It also houses 33 hardened aircraft shelters.
Satellite view of the Qayyara airbase and its runway.
Those facilities took a beating by US air bombing in the 1990s Gulf War and its runways were cratered.
When Saddam was deposed in 2003 Qayyara began its new life as a forward operating base, named Forward Operating Base Endurance by the Americans. When ISIS captured the base in 2014, three years after the Americans pulled its soldiers from Iraq, the US-led coalition once again bombed Qayyara in a bid to kill the militants there.
Iraqi forces managed to recapture the airbase from ISIS control in July “without any resistance.”
Even after capturing the town of Qayyara the following month, the Iraqi military is still not as close to Mosul as the Kurdish military. Peshmerga commander Sheikh Jaffar Mustafa told Rudaw in late August that in some areas the Peshmerga are only seven kilometers from Mosul, which is ISIS’s last major stronghold in Iraq.
The Qayyara base is being spruced up for the Mosul battle, although the US already has helicopters based in the Kurdistan Region and the Kurds have allowed the Iraqi Army to use Makhmour as a launch-pad to attack ISIS in Nineveh.
“The Golden Division (Iraqi Special Forces), Iraqi Army and Federal Police will be the main force attacking the city,” Wing explained, “so it’s only natural that they will come from the south rather than from Kurdistan.”
Rudaw’s Rekar Aziz contributed to this report.