BASAKHRA, Iraq — Inside an abandoned house on the outskirts of Mosul at the end of January, Lt. Gen. Abdul Wahab Al-Saadi sat resting after the day’s mission. The night was bitterly cold. The sun had gone down long ago, but he was still awake, drinking short cups of bitter coffee and describing the battle to retake Mosul, which is being fought street by street among houses full of civilians.
Two weeks earlier, Al-Saadi, a tall man with a thin mustache who is deputy commander of Iraq’s elite, U.S.-trained counter terrorism service, strode through tree-lined streets by the Tigris River as his men cleared the last remaining ISIS pockets of control in the east of the city. His force is at the vanguard of the U.S.-backed fight against ISIS inside Mosul. But the moment Donald Trump signed an executive order banning travel from 7 majority-Muslim countries, Saadi and his men joined the list of people who aren’t supposed to enter the United States.
“We lost a lot of men and blood so the rest of the world can be safe,” he said through an interpreter. “[Trump] should be supporting us and not saying Iraqis can’t visit. We should be welcomed by every country because we are making a great sacrifice in the fight with ISIS.”
Though the order has since been blocked in court, the Trump administration is planning to issue a new one with largely similar parameters. And the message isn’t lost on the thousands of Iraqis currently fighting against ISIS here, often with American training and with American advisers to help them. Though they’re fighting exactly the enemy the U.S. is supposedly targeting, they’re no longer welcome in the U.S.
“We are fighting terrorists, but we are also terrorists? You have to be joking, Mr. Trump! We can’t be both at once,” said Ali, a 36-year-old Iraqi from eastern Mosul who worked as an interpreter for the U.S. troops for two years after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion. An Iraqi F-16 pilot who trained in the U.S., but did not wish to be quoted by name, was furious about Trump’s order. “We are on the verge of kicking ISIS out of Iraq and mitigating them in the entire Middle East, so why does this order come now?” he asked. “Why are you putting me in the same category as ISIS when I’m fighting them 24/7? When I’m on their hit list and my family are in danger?”
The ban isn’t just a symbolic slap to an ally: It also could have some immediate effects on the war effort: Iraqi pilots regularly travel to the U.S. for training on the American-made planes they fly. And the order, as originally written, didn’t make any exception for them. (The Pentagon is hoping to create a loophole that would allow them in.)
The Iraqi soldiers here are still working side-by-side with Americans: Though American troops left Iraq in 2011, around 5,000 Americans are back in support and advice roles for Iraqi forces, and to provide air cover. U.S. strikes against ISIS began in August 2014 after the jihadists seized Mosul and threatened the city of Erbil in Iraq’s Kurdistan Region. Iraqi troops say their personal relationship with American colleagues is still strong. But the ban threatens to undermine the partnership between the two countries at a crucial time in the ongoing fight.
“This is a new, real blow to U.S. Iraqi relations,” said Christine van den Toorn, director of the Institute for Regional an International Studies at the American University of Iraq. “This ban also goes further than anything in the past”, she said, adding, “It’s not a punishment on a government for its behavio, but on its people—most of whom have nothing to do with the violence that currently plagues their states.”
In talking to Iraqi soldiers, commanders and civilians in Mosul and northern Iraq, I found Trump’s ban met with derision and anger and also, typically, some humor. One 34-year-old from Baghdad, laughing, compared Trump to the owner of a new Ferrari who doesn’t want anyone else to get inside, and creates a special guest list. But on a more serious note, Iraqis also know that the ban serves to boost ISIS propaganda, even as ISIS continues to lose territory in Iraq.
Iraq’s Foreign Ministry expressed “regret and astonishment” over the decision a few days after it was written, which also paused the refugee program and prevented travel from Syria, Somali, Yemen, Iran, Libya and Sudan. The statement called on the U.S. government to “reconsider its wrong decision,” adding that Iraq is not a country that exports terrorism. The Iraqi Parliament voted in support of retaliation measures to stop Americans from entering Iraq, although Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi, said that he would not support the vote, citing the importance of ongoing ties during the war with ISIS.
More than 40,000 Iraqi troops from an array of forces have taken part in the fight to retake Mosul from ISIS, which seized the city in 2014 and went on to threaten Baghdad. Many of these forces were trained by the U.S., with some, like the Air Force pilots and generals, traveling back and forth for instruction. Among the troops there is a sense of hurt pride that they are being likened to the jihadists of ISIS they are fighting to defeat, and losing friends to, every day.
The U.S. military spokesman in Iraq, Air Force Col. John L. Dorrian, said in an interview that the ban wouldn’t have ramifications on the operation to defeat ISIS, but acknowledged that it had created concern among Iraqi colleagues. “I don’t want to say there’s no impact because clearly I’ve seen the same reports you have,” he said, “and sometimes people are disappointed or concerned about it. They want to know what it means.” He added that they had tried to explain the ban to Iraqi colleagues, “although that’s kind of a moving target.”
The people actually fighting that war spent the days after the order trying to figure out whether the travel ban applied to them — and just how big an impact it would have on the battle against ISIS. The general has been to the U.S. four times on training missions, he said, the last time in 2011. He is confident the U.S. will make an exception for his men to travel back because of their long history of cooperation with U.S. troops, dating to the founding of the CTS force’s in the wake of the 2003 U.S.-led invasion, as a nonsectarian, nonpolitical force. But other Iraqi military personnel weren’t so sure.
“There’s not a lot of explanation, so we don’t know if our pilots will be able to travel to the United States,” said the Iraqi F-16 pilot. The pilot, who trained in the U.S. for four years and has been flying missions against ISIS for the past two, didn’t want to be named because of the sensitivity of the topic.
There are currently about 25 Iraqi pilots preparing to travel to the U.S. for training, said the pilot. “When they go, they are going to be scared to leave the base and think, what if someone stops me? Will a diplomatic visa help me? Will I be detained?” The Pentagon reportedly is trying to find a way to allow Iraqi pilots to continue their training in the U.S., andDorrian told POLITICO that the pilots will still be allowed to fly to the U.S. for training.
The pilots fly as part of the U.S.-led coalition against ISIS and carry out a minimum of eight missions a week, with eight bombs on board each time, the pilot said. At the moment, they’re flying in support of the CTS in Mosul, picking off ISIS strongholds on the west of the city ahead of the imminent ground advance.
On a recent evening, Gen. Haider sat with Lt. Gen Saadi in their base. The fight for the east of the city was over now and the men were preparing to break the ISIS lines in the west. He acknowledged that ISIS will use the ban for propaganda purposes, but he sounded confident that support for his men would actually increase with the new administration:
“From information we’ve received so far, the U.S. will actually increase their support, especially in the operation in the west of Mosul, to wrap it up faster than the eastern side,” he said. “We’ll see if this is true when we start the operation.” The operation to retake western Mosul began on Sunday 19. Feb,, and on Thursday, federal police and the rapid response division stormed the city’s airport. CTS troops joined the fight on Thursday, attacking the city’s southwest Ghozlani military base. Like all of the CTS, the general was trained by U.S. forces, including on a trip to Washington, D.C., in 2008.
Could the ban hurt the fight against ISIS long after the current battle is over? Haider pointed out that Iraq would need U.S. support after the fighting is over for the rebuilding, reconstruction of cities, towns and infrastructure damaged in the fight; and to replenish the training and equipment for the armed forces. Jokingly, he added that if Iraq had enough F-16 fighter jets of its own, then it wouldn’t need the coalition.
“The signals from the new U.S. administration have been seen as fundamentally disrespectful to the Iraqis, but they are unlikely to change the course of the war against ISIS in Iraq,” said Dr. Nussaibah Younis, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. The real danger, she said, is that once the group is defeated with U.S. help, the Iraqis will kick out the Americans once and for all.
“Given Iraqi anger towards the U.S., it will be politically difficult for Prime Minister Abadi to allow a continued U.S. presence in Iraq much beyond the liberation of Mosul,” she said, providing an opening for Iran to increase its sway over Iraqi affairs.
Ali, the 36-year-old Iraqi from Mosul, spoke as he drove through parts of the city that have come back to life as the fighting subsided, but said he doesn’t want his name used for fear of clandestine ISIS cells that may still be operating in cleared neighborhoods.
In 2013, Ali applied for U.S. immigration under the Special Immigrant Visa program for Iraqis and Afghans in danger because of their work with the Americans. Trump says that the travel ban is to ensure stricter vetting procedures and prevent terrorists from infiltrating as refugees; but for Ali, the vetting procedure already was so exhaustive that his city fell to ISIS before he was granted a visa.
He was told he needed references from his former supervisors to proceed with his SIV application and his file was on hold until he tracked them down on Facebook, but in the meantime, ISIS seized Mosul, parts of western Iraq and threatened Baghdad.
Under the jihadists, Ali was arrested and interrogated for 14 hours before being made to offer formal repentance for his work with the Americans. He was told ISIS informants would be watching him and he couldn’t leave his neighborhood. If he tried to leave Mosul, ISIS said, they would kill his parents, so he spent the next two-and-a-half years hiding inside his house—a time he describes as “living in hell.” He was thrilled when Iraqi troops finally retook his neighborhood last November, but the joy was tarnished by the news of Trump’s ban, which he described as “a stab in the back” for Iraqis who helped the Americans during the war.
On February 2, the White House amended the ban to exempt SIV holders, and it remains to be seen whether that amendment holds when it issues the next version. But for Ali, whose application is still pending three years later, the damage has already been done. “ISIS is very happy,” Ali said. “On their media, they are saying ISIS has achieved one of their goals, which is to terrify America. They are calling it the blessed ban.”