PALM HARBOR — Four years ago, during a visit to Tampa, Iraqi Staff Gen. Talib Shgati Mshari Al Kenani issued a warning to military leaders here about a jihadi group calling itself the Islamic State.
This week, Al Kenani, head of the Iraqi commando force known as the Counter Terrorism Service, returned to MacDill Air Force Base triumphant after the defeat of the group he calls Daesh and the end of its so-called caliphate.
"There is a big difference between 2014 and 2018," said Al Kenani, speaking to the Tampa Bay Times through a translator during a symposium in Palm Harbor. "In 2014 Daesh entered Mosul and violated the human rights of its citizens. In 2018, Mosul was liberated and Iraq was liberated."
Credit for the success of the Iraqi forces goes in part to Al Kenani, who came to the Tampa area to meet with leaders from U.S. Central Command and U.S. Special Operations Command and to receive a lifetime achievement award at the symposium, sponsored by the Global SOF Foundation, a private, nonprofit commando-support group.
In 2007, he was placed in charge of the Counter Terrorism Service. But in 2014, as the Iraqi army was falling apart in the face of a small but determined jihadi group, he was given the additional responsibility of running Iraq’s Combined Joint Operations Center, overseeing all military operations.
Slowly, under Al Kenani’s command, the Iraqi security forces began rolling back Islamic State gains, regaining confidence and taking back cities like Tikrit, Baji and Fallujah before launching a final assault on Mosul in October 2016.
"The coordination and cooperation among the coalition and the Iraqi government played a significant role in the defeat of Daesh," he said. "And the improved morale level of Iraqi soldiers was the second factor."
But along the way, and especially in Mosul, Al Kenani’s CTS forces paid a heavy price as it morphed from a commando unit largely performing nighttime snatch-and-grab raids of high value targets to a maneuvering army charged with taking and holding territory.
The CTS, according to the Pentagon, suffered 40 percent combat losses in the battle of Mosul alone.
"It was a challenge," Al Kenani said. "The great number of casualties was due to the fact that the terrorists were living among the citizens of Mosul. We could not use heavy weaponry for bombardment of neighborhoods, so we had to maneuver from one street to another and chase these guys from house to house to get them."
It’s one thing to defeat an enemy. It’s another thing to rebuild a battle-damaged nation riven by ethnic and sectarian strife and ensure that the inequities between Shia and Sunni that helped lead to the rise of Islamic State are ended.
Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Abadi said it would take nearly $90 billion to restore his ravaged nation, but at a recent conference in Kuwait, allies pledged only a fraction of that — $30 billion, including $3 billion in credit from the United States, Reuters has reported.
Concerns about staving off future unrest are critical in Mosul, a largely Sunni city in a nation run by Shia.
"It is very important to rebuild the city of Mosul," Al Kenani said. "It will re-establish a bridge of trust between the citizens of Mosul and the Iraqi government."
Al Kenani said that even if the prime minster’s funding goals are not met, there is hope.
"The U.S. and coalition have held many conferences to help rebuild. It is going on as we speak."
U.S. and coalition forces remain in the country — a presence that "represents a positive sign for the reconstruction efforts despite the (funding) level."
Besides, Al Kenani added, Iraqis "experienced a great deal of pain and persecution under Daesh and they realize that Daesh is not the solution and won’t allow Daesh to resurface in those areas."
One of Al Kenani’s lasting legacies is creating an organization that took a blind eye toward religious sect. Al Kenani helped foster and enforce that ethos, rare in a society where thousands have perished in Sunni-Shia clashes.
"You do this by setting an example," said Al Kenani, who is a Shia. "In the first weeks people started to congregate or claim their identity as Sunni or Shia. We had to fire some of them because there was no room for this. We only wanted people who self-identify as Iraqi."
The Islamic State is destroyed, though still fighting in pockets in both Syria and Iraq, and tensions remain between the Kurds in the north and the central government. But all things considered, Al Kenani sees a bright future for his nation.
"There is a new vision for Iraq now with inclusiveness," he said. "There is a sense of national identity."
Contact Howard Altman at [email protected] or (813) 225-3112. Follow @haltman