Wednesday,19 June, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1285, (3 - 9 March 2016)
Wednesday,19 June, 2019
Issue 1285, (3 - 9 March 2016)

Ahram Weekly

The bumpy road to Mosul

As a showdown looms in Mosul in northern Iraq, fears are growing that the battle is becoming dangerously polarised, writes Salah Nasrawi

Al-Ahram Weekly

Last week Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi took everyone by surprise when he said that the Shia-dominated Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF) would take part in any planned offensive to retake the city of Mosul in northern Iraq from Islamic State (IS) militants.

The declaration of the PMF’s participation in the liberation of Mosul comes as Iraq’s communities have never been so divided on who should join the battle to take back the country’s second-largest city from the terror group.

Sunni Arabs and the Kurdistan Region Government (KRG) have voiced concern over the participation of the forces, composed mostly of Iran-backed Shia militias, in a widely anticipated offensive to regain Mosul, the capital of the Nineveh Province.

The United States, which is leading an international coalition to help Iraq fight IS militants, is also concerned about including the Shia militias out of fears that the militiamen could inflame sectarian tensions in the Sunni-dominated province.

Troops from “all the security forces, the Hashd Al-Shaabi, and the tribes will participate in the liberation of Nineveh in cooperation with the Kurdistan Region,” Al-Abadi told the Iraqi parliament on 20 February, using the Arabic words for the paramilitary forces.

It was the first time that Al-Abadi, also the commander-in-chief of the country’s armed forces, has broken his silence on whether he will order the deployment of the forces in the battle for Mosul.  

Like its capture by IS in June 2014, the liberation of Mosul is expected to have far-reaching implications for Iraq’s divided communities, with some even fearing radical changes in the country’s political geography.

Moreover, the impact of driving the IS militants from the city which is the de facto capital of the group will soon be felt across the Middle East. Al-Abadi has repeatedly pledged to give IS the boot from Mosul in 2016, but he has not thus far set an exact date for the beginning of the operation.

Iraqi and US commanders have now revealed that Baghdad has started pushing troops towards Mosul and has established the Nineveh Operations Command (NOC) that will be in charge of the offensive.

Najim Al-Jibouri, named as the NOC’s commander, told reporters last week that Iraqi army units had been massing in Makhmour about 90 km southeast of Mosul.

He did not disclose the number of the troops or give other details, but officials privately told the local media that two army brigades had been deployed in the “tactical assembly area” in Makhmour to prepare for the operations.

Iraqi government officials have broadly suggested that the army units participating in the Mosul offensive will consist of about 4,500 soldiers in addition to Kurdish Peshmergas, policemen and local tribesmen.

The US military, which has supplied “train-advise-and-assist” teams to help the Iraqi forces fight IS, has meanwhile intensified its training programme, including by sending US combat advisers to brigade and division level headquarters.

In addition to the aerial bombardment that the US-led coalition warplanes have been providing since the IS onslaught in the summer of 2014, the US could provide attack helicopters for close air support in urban terrain.

US officials have revealed that the assembly site in Makhmour will be a primary base for the US to support the Mosul operations.

However, key questions remain about the timing of the offensive, the military plans, and the coordination between the various forces pitted in the war with their different and sometimes conflicting agendas.

Iraqi Defence Minister Khaled Al-Obaidi said last month that Baghdad would launch the Mosul operation in the first half of 2016.

Yet, concerns abound about training enough troops, the fatigue of units which have been fighting elsewhere in the battlefield against IS, and complexities surrounding the battle for Mosul itself, a sprawling city with a population of nearly two million, much of it believed to be sympathetic to IS.

Some US officials have voiced doubts about the 2016 timetable and said any operation to retake Mosul would be long and complex and unlikely to finish this year.

As for the military strategy and integration and coordination between the partners, there seems to be little to suggest that planners have worked out a battle outline using the best approach for inflicting a final defeat on IS and returning all the land it has seized in Nineveh Province to Baghdad’s sovereignty.

To a large extent, the alliance against IS seems to be a marriage of convenience, agreeing on a common cause to fight the terrorist group but without a crystal-clear agreement on the scope and the expected consequences of the operation in Mosul.

There is also the important question of the deployment of the PMF on the battlefield and what role they are expected to play in the offensive.

Although Al-Abadi has said that the PMF will take part in the operation, it is not clear if these forces will participate in a planned assault on IS strongholds in the city or if that job will be left to the Iraqi army.

There are growing fears that when they enter the city the militias may show some of the brutal excesses that they have reportedly committed in areas previously taken back from IS control.

Al-Abadi’s decision to let the PMF join the battle for Mosul comes under pressure from the leaders of the militias who have vowed to take part in the offensive regardless of his approval.

But it is also in part a response to the imperatives of war, some of them strategic and others tactical.

A successful campaign to defeat IS and drive back the militants in Mosul will require thousands of well-trained and dedicated troops. By some estimates, the task of clearing the fighters out of Mosul will need some 24,000 well-trained soldiers in addition to thousands more supporting forces and police to control the retaken territories.

The participation of the Iranian-trained and equipped PMF, which have already proved effective in the war against IS, will likely help to redress the fighter shortage.

In order to alleviate fears of abuses by unruly militiamen, Al-Abadi has taken some tough measures to put the PMF under the control of the army, including naming an army general as deputy commander of the forces.

He has also reportedly ordered that the force’s manpower be cut by 30 per cent.  

But on a more strategic level, the decision to deploy the PMF comes to balance or confront what the Shia-led government in Baghdad conceives as threats to its sovereignty primarily from Turkey and the Kurdish Peshmergas.

There are some 2,000 Turkish forces bolstered by tanks and armoured personnel vehicles in Bashiqa on the outskirts of Mosul. Turkey claims that its soldiers have mainly been sent to train Sunni tribesmen who will take part in the Mosul operation, but Ankara seems to be getting ready for Iraq’s possible partitioning in an effort to gain territorial advantage.

With Mosul being the last Ottoman vilayet (province) to fall in World War I, the city, given to Iraq under the Sykes-Picot Agreement between Britain and France, has a particular claim on the hearts and minds of many Turks.

Baghdad has repeatedly called the Turkish military presence in Bashiqa an infringement on its sovereignty and demanded its withdrawal. And the Shia militias have vowed to put up a “decisive” fight against the Turkish soldiers.

Moreover, Baghdad is afraid that the Kurdish forces will boost their territorial gains if they take part in a major way in the Mosul operation. Since the standoff with IS began, the Kurds have seized vast swathes of territory in the so-called disputed areas, including districts in Nineveh Province, and declared these to now be part of the autonomous KRG.

KRG President Masoud Barzani has been pursuing a strategy of breaking away from Iraq, and Baghdad is sceptical about Kurdish participation in a military effort to bring back Mosul under its sovereignty.

On Sunday, Jabar Yawir, a KRG military spokesman, said the Peshmergas would not allow the Shia militias to assemble in Makhmour, which has been under Kurdish control since IS advances nearly two years ago.

Of course, there are some other immediate reasons behind the Shia militias’ push to participate in the Mosul offensive. There is a small Shia minority among ethnic Turkomen and Shabak in Mosul, and the militias claim that they are entitled to take part in the liberation of their areas in Nineveh Province.

With many stakeholders and political, ethnic and sectarian agendas involved, the offensive to recapture Mosul from IS will therefore be detrimental not only in the war against the terror group but also to Iraq’s efforts to stay united.


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