Friday,26 May, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1344, (11 - 17 May 2017)
Friday,26 May, 2017
Issue 1344, (11 - 17 May 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Iraq’s expensive victory in Mosul

The final push to retake Mosul from IS remnants is drawing to a close, but the cost of peace still troubles the country

Iraq’s expensive victory in Mosul
Iraq’s expensive victory in Mosul

A devastated Mosul has been bracing for a showdown as Iraqi government forces speed their assault to assert control of remaining neighbourhoods in Iraq’s second-largest city from Islamic State (IS) terrorists.

The Iraqi military gained more ground this week, dislodging the entrenched militants from most parts of Old Mosul, their last strongholds, on the western edge of the city.

In the short term, this may seem like a huge victory for the Shia-led government of Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi in Baghdad. The government will regain sovereignty over the key city, and its forces will be able to tighten the noose on other militant-held pockets.

But delays in the offensive, high causalities among the military and civilians, the humanitarian cost of the campaign, and in particular the absence of a peace plan are all casting shadows over Iraq’s future after the liberation of Mosul.

An emerging Middle East strategy by the Trump administration that prioritises a re-alignment of US policy with Saudi Arabia and Israel’s anti-Iran position is also expected to put immense pressure on the Iraqi Shia-led government.

The Iraqi military and Shia militias operating under the umbrella of the Popular Mobilisation Force (PMF) and backed by the US-led International Coalition against IS began a major offensive to take back Mosul from IS on 17 October more than two years after the city was seized by the militants.

Al-Abadi promised the joint forces would liberate the city by the end of 2016. However, the government forces had only retaken the half of Mosul that lies east of the Tigris River and most of the city west of the river before the assault slowed down.

A few weeks into the offensive, the Iraqi forces became bogged down in an unexpectedly bloody fight to retake the IS stronghold in northern Iraq. They were forced to repeatedly change tactics and pour more soldiers into the battle for the city.

Moreover, the campaign cost more than it was expected in lives lost, and it strained relations with allies because of disagreements over the military and political details of the operation and the future of the territories taken back from IS.

The first challenge to the operation emerged when the Iraqi forces were forced to launch their assault from Kurdish Peshmergas-held territories east of Mosul instead of opening a front south of the city open to government-controlled areas.

That tactic was imposed on Iraqi military commanders during a 19 September meeting that brought them together with Pentagon officials and Kurdistan Region President Masoud Barzani at his office in the mountainous area of Salaheddine.

The aim of the US-supported plan was to assign a role to the Kurdish Peshmergas in the campaign, though an agreement made it clear that no Kurdish forces would be allowed into the city.

Consequently, the Peshmergas, who have seized large swathes of territory in northern Iraq and declared them to be part of their future state of independent Kurdistan, received huge shipments of weapons as a reward, and these are expected to boost the military capabilities of their future Kurdish state.

The second challenge to the operation was posed by the former US administration, which was eager to get the assault underway for the US presidential elections last November to help Democratic Party nominee Hillary Clinton win and boost former president Barack Obama’s standing before the end of his term in January.

Although US airstrikes and other military advice and assistance in the operation were vital in routing IS positions, the Iraqis did the real fighting, leaving a key question open about who is driving the overall strategy in the war against IS.

Many military and political analysts have argued that Al-Abadi should have resisted US pressure and postponed the assault on Mosul for a while until the Iraqi military was fully prepared for the campaign.

Some have also suggested that the US-led Coalition should have launched an offensive to retake the Syrian city of Raqqa from IS before Mosul, a move they say could have forced the group to transfer some of its fighting forces from the city.

This Iraqi-US alliance with its unclear direction has again been put into question as the Trump administration is now designing a new counter-terrorism strategy that squares its goals of facing up to threats from both IS and Iran.

There was also the important question of the expected deployment of the PMF on the Mosul battlefield after the key role it played in recapturing the western Iraqi province of Anbar and other Sunni-dominated towns and cities.

Both the US strategists and the Kurdish leadership insisted on barring the PMF from participating in the assault, apparently to assuage fears by Iraqi Sunnis of the excesses the forces might commit in the liberated areas.

Attempts to exclude the PMF from the battle of Mosul have raised the stakes of the political dynamics in Iraq, created by the rise of the Shia militias and their ambition to be a key player in the political arena in post-IS Iraq.

The result of the mismatch was not only the unnecessary prolonging of the war against IS and its humanitarian costs, but also the throwing of Iraq’s politics into the hands of increasingly many players.

Working within these constraints, Iraqi government forces launched a revamped operation this week to retake Mosul, advancing from the northwest and west in a bid to wipe out the militants from the few remaining neighbourhoods.

Troops from the army and elite forces from the Interior Ministry spearheaded the assault against the militants who are holding on in their last pockets of resistance in narrow streets and winding alleys inaccessible to armoured vehicles.

Iraqi commanders described the operation as a “final assault” and said they hoped to wrap it up before the Muslim holy month of Ramadan begins later this month.

This will be a momentous moment in the war against the terror group that has played havoc with Iraq, but one question remains about the mechanism to influence Iraqi politics that it has already created and that may spur further chaos which the war itself has not.

Of course, there are tremendous amounts of work remaining to be done in peace-building, including national reconciliation and the reconstruction of cities devastated by the war in order to prevent the resurgence of IS or any other Sunni insurgent group.

But Iraq’s main challenge remains the new regional geopolitical environment created by the rise and defeat of IS, given not only the changes in the political landscape over the past few years but also the expected emergence of a number of functional ones as well.

The most immediate political situation that could affect the country’s geopolitical landscape profoundly is perhaps the simmering regional conflict that involves Shia Iran and Arab Sunni governments, especially the emergence of a security alliance that groups the Sunnis with the United States against Iran, Iraq’s main ally.

Since he took office in January, US President Donald Trump has been expressing his desire to improve relations with the Sunni Arab Gulf states in order to tackle Iran’s “destabilising regional activities.”

This approach is expected to be reinforced during a mini-summit that Trump will attend in Saudi Arabia later this month with regional leaders aimed apparently at creating a vast anti-Iran alliance.

Saudi and US officials say the leaders of the Sunni powerhouses and Trump are expected to discuss how to step up the fight against IS and come up with a “war plan” to fight extremism and to plot how to counteract Iran’s influence throughout the region.

Such an alliance would set in stone the geopolitical transformation wrought by the shifting dynamics and have a tremendous impact on Iraq both politically and militarily.

Saudi Deputy Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman took up a harsh stance on Iran last week, threatening that his country could take the battle to the Persian nation itself.

Many analysts believe that Iraq could not survive such a regional power struggle and its ensuing conflicts. In other words, Iraqi would be destined to become a playground for such new regional politics encapsulating all its sectarian and ethnic crises and conflicts.

Indeed, there are signs that these regional conflicts are already taking shape.

The US media reported last week that Washington and Baghdad were in talks to keep American troops in Iraq after the fight against IS in Iraq has concluded. According to these reports, the US is seeking a long-term presence of American troops in Iraq.

Though Al-Abadi’s office has denied any agreement on the US troop presence, the reports suggested increasing US pressure on Baghdad to think twice about whom it sides with.

The news came amid reports that the US had begun a military build-up in western Iraq in preparation for a major operation to support Iraqi forces in driving IS militants out from towns still under their control in the Iraqi Anbar Province.

Currently, the Pentagon has close to 7,000 troops in Iraq, and any further increase would underscore the extent to which the US is being drawn into a country where Iran wields enormous influence, including among powerful and battle-tested Shia militias.

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