ZUMAR, Iraq — The role of American Special Operations Forces in Iraq has remained hidden even while the U.S. air war expands. As momentum against ISIS picks up, they may be emerging from the shadows. In a pitched battle on Monday, Kurdish Peshmerga, backed by American airpower and what appeared to be U.S. troops, struck at ISIS positions in the strategic crossroads of Zumar.
Scenes from Monday’s battle provide a tentative but valuable glimpse into the evolving role of special operations troops and how that might be playing out on the ground in Iraq.
Kurdish forces had once held Zumar but lost control of the town in early August in the same ISIS offensive that drove tens of thousands of Yazidis into the mountains, fleeing massacres at the hands of the Islamist militants. As ISIS advanced, besieging religious minorities and driving the Kurds into retreat, President Obama expand the military mission in the country and authorized airstrikes against the group. The effect of U.S. airpower has been clear, pushing ISIS back and allowing Kurdish and Iraqi security forces to regain territory. The airstrikes have had another important consequence: providing a psychological boon to the anti-ISIS forces in Iraq that’s allowed them to regain some of the initiative in battle.
Over the past several days, Kurdish Peshmerga forces have massed in the thousands around the northern approaches to Zumar. Heavy equipment including rockets and mortars were positioned for the assault. Kurdish political and officials also told The Daily Beast that they would be utilizing weapons that had been flown in from countries including the United States and Germany, during the offensive.
At sunrise on September 1, trucks and vehicles packed the highway west of the Kurdish city of Erbil, capital of the autonomous Kurdish region, heading toward Zumar. In one direction The Daily Beast observed large numbers of Kurdish Peshmerga. In the other direction drove countless numbers of Iraqi refugees, fleeing the fighting with their families and personal belongings. “The fighting is too heavy. We’re looking for safety,” said Hassar, a resident of a small village near Zumar, as he sped away in a small sedan loaded with his family.
The battle began in the early hours of the morning with American airstrikes hitting ISIS positions in and around Zumar. Shortly after the bombs stopped falling Peshmerga infantry units began their advance. Initial reports indicated that the Kurdish fighters were advancing with light resistance, but that quickly changed as ISIS mortar and rocket fire began to rain down.
At the last checkpoint before the battle raging ahead, a little more than a five-minute drive from our position, my Kurdish security team got news from the front line that the fighting would be heavier than expected. Not only had the mutual shelling intensified, but word came that ISIS had reinforced its positions overnight with fighters from Syria.
As the fighting raged we sat and baked in the sun waiting to be brought closer. Then, the news came that our escort, a Peshmerga intelligence official, had been ambushed in route to pick us up. He had escaped, but two of his deputies were killed in the assault. By this time, Kurdish forces had opened up their second line of offense, moving in from both the northeast and northwest, attempting to envelop ISIS fighters in a pincer movement.
My Kurdish contact and I decided to approach the battle from western side of the Mosul Dam reservoir, the strategic dam that had been captured by ISIS before U.S. airstrikes allowed Kurdish and Iraqi military forces to retake it.
At around 10 a.m., the Peshmerga halted our movement. Fearing that the situation was changing rapidly, we asked the Kurdish security element accompanying us what was happening. “We don’t know,” they said, “we just got information that you cannot move forward.” Repeated calls were met with the same firm statement that we could not move forward.
Stuck out in the open with no clear sense of what was occurring in the battle that required us to be stopped, we made contact with high-level Peshmerga ministries, both in Erbil and on the ground in Zumar. “Yes, we want to let you in, but we can’t,” said one high-level Kurdish government official. “We have visitors, you’ll see them,” he stated. As we tried to decipher his cryptic response our answer came: multiple armored Toyotas swept down the mountain, passing within feet of us. The Toyotas were packed with what appeared to be bearded Western Special Operations Forces. I watched the trucks pass and saw for myself the crews inside them. They didn’t wear any identifying insignia but they were visibly Western and appeared to match all the visual characteristics of American special operations soldiers.
Contacts in the Kurdish intelligence service and Peshmerga leadership confirmed what we saw. “Yes,” one commander replied to our questions. “German and American forces are on the ground here. “They are helping to support us in the attack.”
“There are no U.S. troops on the ground in or around Zumar.” The Pentagon told The Daily Beast on Monday night. Captain Rick Haupt, a spokesman for U.S. Central Command, which has control over military operations in the Middle East, denied that U.S. troops were involved in the fighting but confirmed U.S. aircraft “performed one strike destroying several vehicles in the vicinity of Zumar” on Monday.
Kurdish officials told The Daily Beast a different story. Ranking members of the Kurdish military and intelligence service said that one team of U.S. Special Operations was on the ground in Zumar along with several German counterparts, working in conjunction with Peshmerga units. According to the Kurdish sources, U.S. and German special operations teams had taken up positions in Zumar that allowed them to coordinate with U.S. aircraft.
If American troops were active in the fighting in Zumar, as they appeared to be on Monday, and as Kurdish officials stated, it would mark a significant break with U.S. official policy. Even as President Obama has avoided getting the military more involved in Iraq, the mission has gradually expanded. U.S. airstrikes began as a policy to break the siege on Yazidis and prevent ISIS from attacking Americans in Erbil but have grown to “support Iraqi security forces and Kurdish defense forces” in their fight against ISIS.
By the end of the day on Monday, Kurdish officials announced they had full control of Zumar. Security in the town appeared to be tenuous at best, though, with continued reports of potential suicide bombers. These same officials estimated that roughly 100 ISIS fighters had been killed, with 38 captured. In an interview with The Daily Beast, General Yusuf, of the Peshmerga Ministry, stated that several foreign fighters were among those captured, including Afghan and Lebanese nationals.
With recent victories under their belt the Kurds appear poised to keep pressing the fight against ISIS and retaking territory they lost in early August. Something has changed in Iraq since the U.S. got involved. It may be the air war alone that opened the way for the recent Kurdish offensive or it may be the presence of elite ground forces. Even the air war may be relying on a small number of unacknowledged operators who are hidden in the shadows of the battle picking off ISIS targets.
As the air war in Iraq has expanded, U.S. ground forces have officially been kept far from the fighting, acting in an advisory role in secure locations in Erbil and Baghdad. Bringing special operations forces closer to the front lines could make them far more effective but greatly increases the odds of an American casualty. Positioned closer to the front, even at a distance from active ground fighting, troops can call in precision airstrikes and quickly bring in firepower that can sway the momentum of battle.
As the White House continues to mull over it options, the mounting successes of special operations forces, who have helped begin to turn the tide in Iraq, may provide a blueprint for a broader strategy.