The battle for Mosul has finally begun. Prime Minister Haidar Abadi announced the beginning of the operation on October 16. Kurdish President Massoud Barzani called it a “historic day,” and it was. While the Islamic State still holds territory in western Anbar along the Syrian border and the Hawija and Riyad areas of southern Kirkuk, Mosul is the organization’s unofficial capital. It was the first major city that the group took when it launched its summer offensive in 2014, and holds great symbolic significance for both it and the Iraqi government. Taking it back will not mean the death knell of IS, but it will be a huge setback to lose a key piece in its caliphate.
Iraqi Prime Minister Abadi promised to free Mosul by the end of the year, so there was immense pressure to get the forces in place and reach a broad agreement amongst all the stakeholders, facilitated by the United States, about their different roles. As a result, the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) is supposed to be the only ones that enter Mosul itself. The Peshmerga and Hashd are to hold the perimeter. The fear is that if either of those two would go into the city it could turn the population against not only the liberating forces, but the government as well. As Michael Knights of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy recently noted this operation offers Baghdad a great opportunity to win over the population of Mosul, which has been a hotbed of anti-government and insurgent activity since the U.S. invasion.
The question as ever is whether these agreements will hold. A similar one was made before the Fallujah operation that the Hashd would stay out of the city. As it turned out, Badr members in the Federal Police took part in the battle. The Hashd also claimed that they fought to liberate the Jolan neighborhood in the north of the city. Mosul is such a prize to all the forces involved that they may not be able to resist the temptation to enter it.
That also hints at the difficulties that might emerge after Mosul is taken. Many of the fighting parties would like to claim the city and parts of Ninewa as well. The central government wants to re-integrate Mosul into the country after it has been under the Islamic State’s control for two years. The Kurds may not be interested in running the city itself, but are interested in annexing much of the territory around it and to the south that they say are parts of the disputed areas. Masrour Barzani for example, the son of the Kurdish president said that they would not give up any of the land that it freed from the militants. In turn, members of the pro-Iranian factions of the Hashd have responded that they would not allow the Kurds to seize anything during the Mosul offensive. Former Ninewa Governor Atheel Nujafi would also like to play a part in his attempt to return to power. As a result, his Hashd al-Watani expressed that they would join in the campaign. He and the Barzanis’ Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) are aligned with Turkey, which has a small camp in Bashiqa to the northeast. It wants to use the offensive to assert its hegemony over Ninewa. There is also the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) from Turkey, which is based in Sinjar to the west. They have said that they too will attack Mosul along with their Yazidi allies. While some suggested that Mosul should be put off due to all of these conflicting agendas and some sort of political deal be made beforehand that probably would have not worked. Whatever agreement was made could have been overturned by facts on the ground after the battle was over. Negotiations on the future of Mosul and Ninewa therefore are best done afterward.
The actual campaign could be a long one. That’s due to the sheer size of Mosul, which is almost as big as Baghdad. Surrounding it and coordinating between the various groups, many of which do not get along could be a difficult task.
So far the Iraqi forces are advancing along two axes, with the Kurds in the east. Up to 10,000 Peshmerga have set out along the Irbil-Mosul highway. They entered the Khazir area heading towards Bartella and Hamdaniya. The Islamic State set oil wells in the latter on fire to try to prevent air strikes by blocking aerial views of the battlefield. The Kurds claimed they freed ten villages on the first day. In the process they fought off several car and suicide bombings. The press reported that a total of 8 Peshmerga were killed and 11 wounded in the process.
To the south the ISF and Hashd are moving forward from its base in Qayara. The elite Golden Division and army brigades are going up the eastern side of the Tigris River, which leads to Mosul, while other army units and Interior Ministry forces are to the east of the river. The army’s 9th Division said that it liberated six villages on October 16. The ISF also claimed to have killed six suicide bombes. Overall, the media reported that one soldier lots his life and two others were injured during the fighting.
It didn’t appear that there were many IS fighters on either axis. In at least one village it was said that people rose up against the Islamic State and expelled them.
Until the joint forces reach Mosul itself the areas to the west are still under the insurgents control. That will give them an escape route. One Iraqi official told the Washington Post that they were hoping that the militants would give up and flee that way, while an Iraqi general said that the western regions would be targeted by Iraqi aircraft to kill IS elements that might be moving through there.
In Mosul itself there are continued stories of hardships. Its been said that there are only a few hours of electricity available, some areas lack running water, the schools did not open this year, and that IS is carrying out recruiting drives of both young and old to bolster their defenses. Kurdish sources claimed that up to 300 suspected IS deserters have been caught in the last month amongst displaced people. Finally, there are many reports of resistance groups carrying out scattered attacks upon IS in Mosul and the surrounding areas. Islamic State propaganda on the other hand, is trying to portray life as going on normally within the city.
Overall, the first day of the Mosul operation made good progress with little resistance. That will likely change in the coming period when the insurgents’ first line of defense is met. When the city itself is reached the sheer size of it will also pose new challenges as well. The Fallujah campaign however may show that Mosul will go down quicker than some believe. In the former, most of the residents remained in the city along with IS families and leadership. That meant that the group could not build its usual defense in depth right into the heart of the urban areas because there were people in the way. The group for example, couldn’t lay down IED fields in populated districts or booby trap as many homes. What civilians can be used for are human shields, but that is no substitute for sound military preparations. In the end, the city will fall. It is only a matter of time.
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