In a speech in Baghdad on September 3, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi promised that his troops would “fully retake” Mosul, seat of power of the Islamic State (IS) in the country. A few weeks later, in line with the Prime Minister’s plans, a special forces unit of the Iraqi army, aided by the American air force, formally launched the battle for Mosul. But six weeks into the operation, Iraqi troops are still in the outlying districts of Mosul, making very slow advances in the battleground. They made some quick gains in the first two weeks of the operation which then slowed down in the wake of strong IS counter-attacks, indicating that a long battle is ahead.
Even before the operation began, it was certain that Mosul would be a tough battle. Iraqi troops, who abandoned positions and fled in June 2014 when a few hundred IS fighters entered Mosul and surrounding regions, had neither the battleground strength nor the morale to launch a major operation against the ideologically charged, ready-to-die militants of Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi. The Iraqi government, with support from the Americans and the Iranians, had to literally rebuild a fighting force before going to war. The strategy was to go for small cities first. The Iran-trained Shia militants, Al-Hashd al-Sha’abi (Popular Mobilisation Forces, or PMFs), also joined the Iraqi army. This strategy was effective in freeing cities like Ramadi and Fallujah. But the delay in the operation for Mosul gave the IS enough time to build strong defences in the city.
The Iraqi army is still not a formidable force. But it has the support of the American air force and intelligence, Kurdish Peshmerga and the Shia militia groups, which, put together, is a superior conventional force to the IS. But this coalition has some inherent weaknesses too. Primarily, Mosul is not Ramadi or Fallujah. It’s the second largest city of Iraq with about a million people, predominantly Sunnis. If Iraqi troops use heavy weapons or if U.S. bombers follow Russia’s ‘scorched earth’ Aleppo model in Mosul, civilian casualties will be very high. The consequences would be lasting given the particularly fraught sectarian equations between Sunnis and Shias. In the earlier anti-IS battles, Iraqi troops and Shia militias were accused of widespread crimes against Sunnis. If Iraqi troops commit the same mistake in Mosul, that would be tantamount to playing the battle to the hands of the IS, which thrives on sectarian rivalry. In today’s Iraq, the IS is the only major Sunni militia/jihadist group and it would portray the attack on Mosul as a Shia onslaught on a Sunni town.To avoid such mayhem, the Iraqi government has kept the Shia PMFs away from the task force that’s advancing into Mosul. The task force, comprising Iraqi special forces and the Kurdish Peshmerga, is fighting from the eastern flanks of the city, while Shia militias are deployed on the western borders to cut supplies to the IS from Syria. One has to wait and see how this strategy will influence the battle. But the initial weeks suggest that without Shia militia groups in the frontlines, the Iraqi offensive looks weaker. This is the biggest dilemma Baghdad faces in the battle. If it involves Shia militias, sectarian tensions may flare up, and if it doesn’t, the military mission may weaken.
Differences among the forces
Besides, the only factor that ties together the actors in the anti-IS coalition is their common goal to see the terrorist group defeated. There are serious differences among the forces. For example, though the Peshmerga is part of the task force, Baghdad is suspicious of the real goal of the Kurdish regional government in Erbil. After the civil war broke, Erbil has already amassed territories that were historically not part of Kurdistan. The Iraqi army wants the Peshmerga withdrawn from Mosul as soon as the battle is over. Nechirvan Barzani, the Kurdistan Regional Prime Minister, had said earlier this year that the Peshmerga would play the central role in liberating Mosul. It’s not clear what the Peshmerga plan is, given that the city has a minuscule Kurdish population. Also, if Iraqi troops do not make real progress on the ground in coming weeks, Baghdad would come under pressure, mostly from Iran, to let armed Shia militants join the operation. That would not only raise the prospects of sectarian conflict, but also regional tensions. Turkey, which has battle-ready troops in Iraq, has warned of a full-blown intervention against any efforts to expand Shia control over Mosul, which has a sizeable group of ethnic Turkomans as well, largely Sunnis. Given these complexities of Mosul, Iraq might prefer to go slow and have full control over the operation. It will have to clear the city building by building and manage the areas it liberates by offering protection and basic services to the people living there. This means, Prime Minister Abadi’s goal of seizing the entire city by year-end may not be met. If the Iraqi troops haven’t even got close to the eastern banks of the Tigris, which divides Mosul nearly in half, after six weeks of the battle, recapturing the whole city could take months. To be sure, if Mosul is seized, that would be the greatest setback to the IS since the so-called caliphate was announced. If Raqqa, the eastern Syrian city, is the de facto capital of the ‘Caliphate’, Mosul is its jewel. But even the loss of Mosul doesn’t necessarily mean that the IS would be defeated easily. As the recent blast in Hilla, near Karbala, that killed over 100 people demonstrates, the IS’s capacity to hit civilian centres, even when its bases are under attack, remains potent. Also, its predecessor, al-Qaeda in Iraq, had retreated from fighting when it came under severe attack by Sunni tribal militias and U.S. forces in 2006-08, only to regroup when it found an opportunity in Syria. The IS could do the same, but only after making Iraqi troops pay a heavy price for Mosul.