The first moves for the liberation of Mosul have begun in Iraq. Troops have moved north into Ninewa province. A security operation in Salahaddin and Anbar to cut Islamic State supply lines is underway. The battle for the city however may be still a far ways off.
Three Iraqi army brigades are being moved into Ninewa province for the Mosul operation. That started with troops from the 16th Division in October. Then in February two more brigades from the 15th Division arrived. These soldiers are going to the Makhmour district, which is now the headquarters of the Ninewa Operations Command. Five to nine more brigades are preparing as well. There’ are questions about what role these troops will play in the actual assault. In the successful Ramadi operation, the elite Golden Division was in the lead in the entire operation with other forces only in a support role. U.S. advisers have said that won’t be applicable to Mosul because of the size of the city. That means these troops need not only training but more combat experience as well so that they are ready to carry their own weight.
Other preparatory moves have begun as well in Anbar and Salahaddin. In March, the joint forces began a multi-pronged clearing operation from Thar Thar lake in northern Anbar to Samarra in central Salahaddin, and from Samarra north to Tikrit and then Baiji. These moves are meant to cut IS’s supply lines from Anbar and Salahaddin to Mosul. The joint forces have claimed quick success, but the area is a huge mix of rural and desert territory, which they have gone through multiple times. It’s been hard for them to hold it in the past and the same is likely now. There are plenty of other areas that need to be cleared as well such as Shirqat in Salahaddin, Hawija in Kirkuk, and the towns south of Mosul. Cities in Anbar like Hit and Fallujah could also draw forces away from the Mosul operation. These will all take times and resources and delay the eventually attack.
Finally, the politics of the assault must also be considered. Every group in Iraq wants to take part in the offensive since it is considered the final straw in freeing territory from IS control. Besides the army, the Hashd, the Kurds, former Ninewa Governor Atheel Najafi and his Turkish allies all want a piece of the pie. Nujafi, the Ninewa council, and Sunni politicians in parliament have all objected to the Hashd taking part, but Abadi has said they will. Likewise, the Hashd don’t want the Turks involved because they are allied with Nujafi and the Kurds, and are believed to be IS supporters. Prime Minister Haidar Abadi needs to balance out all of these forces. As Denise Natali of the National Defense University has pointed out, a political agreement needs to be forged before the offensive begins. Any observer of Iraqi politics will know, that will be another major challenge.
While Iraqi and American officials have said that the Mosul operation is already underway the actual assault on the city may not happen until 2017. General Vincent Stewart and Interior Minister Mohammed Ghabban have said as much. The need to clear territory, train and prepare more troops, and forge a political deal will all take time pushing back the start date.
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