Monday,18 December, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1289, (31 March - 6 April 2016)
Monday,18 December, 2017
Issue 1289, (31 March - 6 April 2016)

Ahram Weekly

The battle for Mosul

Iraqi troops have made headway in the fight to liberate Mosul, but to uproot the Islamic State group from Iraq it may take more than one offensive, writes Salah Nasrawi

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Al-Ahram Weekly

“The first phase of the Fatah (conquest) operation was launched at dawn to liberate Nineveh, raising the Iraqi flag in several villages.”

The words of Yahya Rasool, an Iraqi army spokesman, to describe the beginning of the offensive to retake Mosul, the provincial capital of Nineveh, from Islamic State (IS) jihadists may exaggerate the scale of the fighting, but they make plain the emotional and strategic symbolism attached to Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city.

Last Thursday, Iraq’s military said the initial assault was launched from the Makhmour area some 60 miles southeast of Mosul where thousands of Iraqi security forces have been deployed in recent weeks setting up advanced bases alongside tribal volunteers from Mosul.

On the first day of the operation, some 4,000 troops, mostly soldiers from two army brigades from Iraq’s 15th Division, advanced westwards, recapturing several villages from IS militants.

Alongside the Iraqi troops, US forces, members of the Mosul police force and Kurdish Peshmergas have been involved in various degrees in the operation to take back the city that was captured by IS in June 2014.

As was expected, members of the controversial Shia-dominated Popular Mobilisation Force, better known as Hashd Shaabi, who have participated in fighting IS elsewhere in Iraq did not join the troops in the initial stage of the mission.

While the role of the Mosul police and the Peshmergas was minimal and limited to the rear, US troops seem to be playing a crucial part in the campaign to retake Mosul from IS.

US officials have acknowledged that marines operating out of a small outpost in Iraq provided artillery and targeting support for the advancing Iraqi troops.

The US fire base is expected to be relocated with the progress of the offensive in order to be closer to Mosul as Iraqi security forces push towards the city. American jets also participated in the mission, launching multiple airstrikes and hitting IS rocket and mortar positions on the battlefield.

At least seven US airstrikes were conducted days before the ground offensive started against IS targets inside the city, including Mosul University which is considered a base for IS militants.

The US is also providing intelligence and drones that have been used to track the militants and kill their leaders.

Highlighting the US role in the Mosul campaign, which is clearly providing political capital for Washington, the Pentagon said it was planning to deploy additional American combat troops in Iraq to accelerate military operations against IS.

On the operational level, however, there is little information available about the Iraqi military’s plans to recapture Mosul from IS or about how long the attacking forces will take to drive the militants out of the city.

Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi has said that the Iraqi security forces will retake Mosul this year, but top American officers have questioned whether the Iraqi army will be ready in time.

The first phase of the offensive seems to be designed to clear part of the Mosul theatre south of the city and allow the troops to establish a bridgehead at Qayyarah, a town on the eastern bank of the River Tigris.

Qayyarah is on the strategic road networks that connect Mosul with south and western Iraq. Its capture will cut communications between the militants in Hawija and Shirqat, two IS strongholds to the south.

Once they capture Qayyarah, the Iraqi forces will need to cross the River Tigris by using a pontoon bridge in order to move forward on the main north-south highway to Mosul.

It is not clear why the Iraqi military has chosen the Makhmour-Qayyarah axis to launch the offensive operation to retake Mosul, leaving other axes unexploited which are shorter and closer to the city.

By designating this section of the operations theatre for the launch of the offensive, the Iraqi troops have also left Hawija and Shirqat behind the lines, exposing the troops to flanking attacks by militants. 

One consideration could be that other routes to Mosul are controlled by the Kurdish Peshmergas whose exact role in executing the plans to retake the city has not been clearly defined.

The Peshmergas are less than nine miles from the city’s eastern and northern outskirts at some points along the front line, but their entry into Mosul could be controversial after they seized all the other territories taken back from IS and declared them to be annexed to the Kurdistan Region.

Turkish troops are also stationed in Bashiqa in the Kurdish-controlled section where they claim to be training Sunni volunteers from Mosul. Baghdad has repeatedly accused Ankara of harbouring ambitions in Mosul, and it has called for the troops’ withdrawal, rejecting any role for Turkish troops in the Mosul operation.

Worse still, fighters from the Turkish Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) are also in control of Sinjar and other western districts of the Nineveh province, further complicating the scene.

Another consideration is that the Iraqi plan for phase one of the Mosul mission may be to encircle Hawija and Shirqat and envelope the militants there and force them to surrender.

As they had done in the fight to drive IS militants from Tikrit and Ramadi, the Iraqi forces are expected to work slowly and deliberately to cut off the supply lines to Mosul before launching a major assault on the city.

By Tuesday, the Iraqi troops had penetrated a few miles in the area and captured several villages. Iraqi officers said the troops had been held up by explosives rigged by militants in streets and buildings along the roads.

But Kurdish officials who have been pushing the US and other Western nations for more weapons and equipment have been telling the Western media that the slow progress has been due to the Iraqi generals’ inefficiency.

The Iraqi security forces have meanwhile made a new push in their fight against IS in the Anbar province by retaking Kubaysah. The gain is significant, as it will enable the troops to cut IS supply lines between the Syrian city of Raqqa and militants in Iraq.

Simultaneously, Sunni tribal fighters, PKK fighters and Yezidi forces have recaptured key villages in Sinjar in the border areas with Syria from IS. The forces were also able to cut off a strategic supply line for IS.

Recapturing Mosul, which along with Raqqa in Syria is one of the militants’ two main hubs, would be a game-changing prize for the Iraqi forces.

Reclaiming Mosul from IS would be a strategic turning point in Iraq’s war against the terror group. Yet, the battle for Mosul, a city of two million people and one that has a largely Sunni population that defers to the Shia-led government in Baghdad, will not be easy.

Government forces have already met with stiff resistance from IS fighters in the first step of their offensive to retake the city. The group is believed to have forged alliances with tribes in the area which could allow the militants to entrench themselves in local communities and fight back against the attacking forces.

For Baghdad to move effectively to defeat IS, it will need a cohesive and effective combined military and political strategy that will not only drive the militants from Mosul but will also beat the group in all of Iraq.

Even with the efforts made to drive them back from the areas they captured during their stunning advances in the summer of 2014, the militants remain relentless in their campaign against the government. 

For months, the group has been sending suicide bombers to attack security forces positions and targets in Shia-populated towns and neighbourhoods. The escalation of bombings in areas outside IS control suggests the group is capable of responding to threats by the government security forces.

One advantage for the IS militants is that the Iraqi security forces have become stretched thin after retaking large swathes of territory from the group in the western and northern provinces.

With local sympathisers colluding with the group, the militants are still capable of carrying out hit-and-run attacks against security forces positions, making it difficult to stabilise areas and towns retaken from IS.

In other cities and in Baghdad, IS sleeper cells are providing both logistical support and suicide bombers.

As recently as last week, a suicide bomber blew himself up at a football stadium in Iskandariya south of the Iraqi capital Baghdad, killing at least 30 people and injuring 95.

At least 60 people were killed earlier this month at an attack in Hilla, when an explosives-laden fuel tanker slammed into a government checkpoint. IS later claimed responsibility for both attacks.

One reason for the fall of Mosul and other Iraqi cities to IS some two years ago was that the Iraqi government did not have a political and security plan to deal with the threat.

Whether Iraq can now turn a successful military operation to take back Mosul into a total defeat of IS depends largely on whether the Baghdad government has a plan for the day after the assault ends.

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