On the morning of February 19 Prime Minister Haider Abadi went on state television to announce the start of the operation to take west Mosul. The day before the Iraqi air force dropped flyers over the city telling people their liberation as coming. The Federal Police also went on the offensive to seize four villages to secure their jump off spots for the new campaign. There was just under a month gap between freeing east Mosul and attacking the west. That time was necessary to rearm and reposition forces.
The first stage of the new operation has three main goals. One is for the Federal Police to take Abu Saif, which is the high ground overlooking south Mosul. The Rapid Response Division is heading for the Ghazlani military base, which is next to the Mosul airport in the southern section of the city. Their ultimate goal is to seize the airport itself. The Islamic State has tried to destroy the facilities there so they cannot be used. Once it is secured army engineers, likely with U.S. coalition support, are going to move in and try to make repairs as quickly as possible to the runways to allow them to be used to fly in supplies for the battle. All together these would give the ISF a vantage point over the entire southern section of the city, as well as staging areas for moving forward. A third thrust is being made by the army’s 9th Division and the Hashd’s Al-Abbas Division towards the southwestern section of Mosul. At a later time, the Golden Division and other units are expected to cross the Tigris River using pontoon bridges provided by the Americans. Some of those have been sent to the Palestine neighborhood in southern Mosul. That would make the militants fight on two fronts the south and the east, stretching their manpower and resources.
The Iraqi forces (ISF) made some quick gains on the first day. The attack began with a barrage on IS positions. The Federal Police and Rapid Reaction Division set off and captured Lazaaqah and the villages around it. The town is important because it contains the power station that provides electricity for all of west Mosul. Unfortunately the insurgents blew up power towers and transmission lines as they retreated. The 9th Division moved towards Ghazlani, and a third thrust of army forces and the Hashd’s Al-Abbas Division, which is loyal to Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani, headed for Abu Saif. Iraqi attack helicopters were overhead providing support. By nightfall the police forces had freed 8 villages, the 9th Division 7, and the Hashd and army 4 more. The ISF also claimed to have destroyed 19 car bombs in the process.
The U.S. led Coalition has stepped up its presence as well. U.S. Special Forces were part of the Federal Police and Rapid Reaction Division column. There has also been more airstrikes. They have gone from 12-20 per day up to 30-50. A U.S. pilot told the press that at any one time there were up to 50 aircraft flying over the battlefield. Most of those are drones that are looking for targets. U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said that Washington was behind the new effort, as can be seen by the increased support the Coalition is providing.
The inclusion of the Al Abbas Division is a change in plans for the Mosul campaign. At the start, Premier Abadi said that the Hashd would not enter the city to try to allay the public fear of abuses. He went back on that promise after east Mosul was freed. There were not enough forces to hold that half of the city as well as move on the west so a Shabak Hashd unit was moved in. Now the Abbas Division is playing a major combat role as well, again because more forces were needed. The Ninewa council initially objected to their role, but changed their view. Vice President Osama Nujafi who is from the province still had reservations, saying the Hashd should stay to the west of the city in the Tal Afar district. Choosing the Al Abbas Division was probably easy for Baghdad. It follows Ayatollah Sistani, not Iran, has worked closely with the Iraqi army and police before, and is likely to be integrated into the ISF sometime in the future. That made them more acceptable to the Ninewa government. Nujafi on the other hand does not want outside forces in Mosul because it could threaten his family’s plans to re-establish their position there.
Iraqi propaganda continued to put out stories about the poor condition of the Islamic State in west Mosul. There was another report that the group was evacuating their families not only out of southern Mosul, but out of the city overall towards Syria. Similar news has been spread since the start of the Mosul campaign in October. Most of the IS leadership and their relatives have probably been out of the city for months now. Low-level members may not have had the ability to leave until now because of their superiors.
The insurgents were also facing continued resistance. IS accused people in west Mosul of being traitors for not answering their call to arms. The group has been forcibly drafting fighting aged men into its forces, but apparently few of them are reporting for duty. Three IS facilities were set on fire, and some of its patrols were also attacked. Iraqi flags were raised over three buildings in the Old City section of Mosul. IS conducted raids to try to find the culprits. For over a year now small groups of resistance fighters have been carrying out hit and run attacks upon the Islamic State in Mosul. These never posed a threat to the organization, but they showed that people were willing to confront the group, and were not all supporters of the Islamists as some people claimed.
Aid groups continued to warn of a humanitarian crisis emerging out of the new battle. The United Nations said that its resources were stretched trying to handle all the people needing assistance made worse by the fact that it has never gotten the funding that it has asked for. The U.N. is also afraid of a mass exodus out of west Mosul during the fighting. Save the Children’s Iraq director didn’t think that would happen for now, as people are afraid to leave because of threats from the insurgents. More importantly, many people stayed within east Mosul when the government assaulted it rather then leaving for camps. The same trend is likely to repeat itself now.
There were more Islamic State attacks on east Mosul. A suicide bomber hit the restaurant in the Zuhur neighborhood that was attacked in the same fashion on February 10. This time 2 people were killed and 9 were wounded. Another suicide bomber set off his device at a checkpoint to a market in Nabi Younis leaving 5 dead and 2 injured. Last, a drone left four wounded in Wahda. IS has done its best to make east Mosul feel like a besieged city since it was liberated in the middle of January. There are daily mortar, rocket and drone strikes, and IS sleeper cells and infiltrators have been able to set off suicide and car bombs as well. There were likely more incidents that were not reported.
The Guardian reported on videos released on social media of ISF and Hashd units abusing IS members. One video showed Federal Police beating four men, and then executing three of them. In two others prisoners were abused and then told to imitate animals. In another a man is being held down on the floor and viewers were asked what to do with him. Most called for his death. The United Nations demanded that the government investigate these videos. Baghdad said it would, but denigrated them calling them a “fabrication.” The Iraqi forces have a long history of abuse and torture of not only Islamic State fighters, but also common criminals dating back to the Baath days and before. They were never ended after 2003. The difference now is that the Iraqi forces brag about their misdeeds by posting them on social media. At the same time, the government cannot be expected to do anything about it because it would hurt their image, and they believe the morale of the country. In turn it exerts benign neglect whenever it comes up. Hence an investigation was announced, but nothing will come of it. In fact, the authorities often cover up any crimes that take place.
Reuters reported on the divisions within Ninewa that the Islamic State has brought about. In the town of Rfaila 45 kilometers/30 miles south of Mosul residents were going after not only IS sympathizers but their remains. People were throwing grenades at the homes of people they accused of helping the militants to try to force them to leave. At the same time, they were blowing up homes of IS members and even digging up the graves of some to desecrate their remains. Many provinces are choosing collective punishment to deal with these people after areas are freed by either not allowing them in, or isolating them in camps. With no effort at reconciliation combined with Iraq’s culture of revenge and maintaining family honor when people are killed these hatreds will continue for years.
Finally, on a positive note, the Oil Ministry announced that one more oil fire in Qayara was extinguished. IS set the oil field on fire there when it was forced to retreat. There are still four wells ablaze. These have created an environmental disaster in the area spewing toxic fumes and darkening the sky for months now.
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