|(Institute for the Study of War)|
The Iraqi forces (ISF) continued their advance on the second day of the new campaign for Mosul. Six villages were freed. That included Abu Saif, which is the high ground overlooking part of south Mosul. Another was Sahaji, which cut the road from Mosul to Tal Afar. The Federal Police and Rapid Response Division also began attacking the Ghazlani army base, which is next to the Mosul airport. The government’s media cell announced that this marked the end of the first stage of operations. Next will be taking the airport and then moving into the city itself.
The ISF are going to open another front eventually with a crossing of the Tigris River led by the Golden Division. They are staging in the Palestine and Yarimjah neighborhoods in the southern tip of the eastern half of the city. They will likely connect with the police forces coming from the south. Much of the talk before the campaign re-started was of this river crossing across the Tigris. That led to the Islamic State fortifying riverbank. That now appears to have been a feint to distract the militants from where the real attack would come from, which is in the south.
The official line from the Iraqi political and military leadership is that the Islamic State is already defeated, and west Mosul will be easier than the east. New Sabah, the government’s paper, for instance, had another story of IS fighters fleeing the city. Now that the battle has actually begun, ground commanders are beginning to dissent. They told both Reuters and CNN that they expect the coming fight for the city to be difficult. The main problem is the narrow streets and packed buildings. The roads are too small for tanks and armored fighting vehicles to navigate. The closeness of the buildings will also make it more difficult to call in artillery or air strikes for fear of collateral damage. The Islamic State has also laid down its usual IED fields and booby traps, and is building berms to block off streets to try to limit the Iraqi forces’ movement through the city. It will also deploy suicide and car bombs just as it did in the east. The terrain will make it a more difficult fight, but in the end IS’s defenses will be broken and the city will eventually be taken.
U.S. and British Special Forces are right at the front with the ISF. British Special Air Service, American Green Berets and the Delta Force were all reported to be working with the Iraqis. The U.S. commander in Iraq General Stephen Townsend said that they were close to the battle lines. This is part of the Trump administration’s new policy to loosen the rules of engagement. News reports about these advisers led Prime Minister Haider Abadi’s office to admit their presence but deny that they were taking part in any of the fighting. The premier is pro-Western, but his main opponents are within his own Dawa Party and part of the Hashd who are aligned with Iran. They are constantly complaining about the U.S. led Coalition’s presence, which was why Abadi’s office had to issue such a statement.
Aid groups are still afraid of a pending humanitarian crisis from the new battle. More camps and tents are being built as a result. These organizations are trying to prepare for three possible scenarios from the attack on west Mosul. One is a mass displacement of up to 400,000 people. Another is a long siege that could trap the civilians inside the city, which is already suffering massive shortages of food, fuel, electricity and water. The third is people leaving in an orderly fashion. What’s more likely is that most of the population stays inside the city just as they did in the east with a few thousand fleeing. The United Nations has consistently overestimated the displacement that would occur from this campaign. Originally it warned of up to one million people leaving their homes. Only around 200,000 left all of Ninewa, and now more people are returning.
The Daily Beast had an article on the difficulty of rebuilding the police force in Mosul. Before 2014 when the city fell there were 28,000 officers in the city. There were also army units to help with security. Today there are only 6,000 police. The U.S. Coalition is trying to help with the situation by training an entirely new police force. That is a long process however. In the meantime the city is being secured by a hodgepodge of army, police, Federal Police, Hashd, and local neighborhood and tribal forces. While the population is trying to help them by providing information on IS suspects the different forces do not cooperate, and actively compete with each other leading to gaps in security, which the insurgents are sure to exploit. If the militants continue with their bombings and escalate to assassinations and rebuilding their criminal activities once business returns less people will likely be willing to inform on them. That could devolve into the pre-2014 situation when IS was like a mafia controlling large swaths of the city.
As more time passes disputes over the future of Ninewa become more public. A group of pro-Kurdish sheikhs held a press conference calling for Kurdish President Massoud Barzani to free the rest of the province rather than have the Hashd do it. At the same time, a Hashd commander said that ex-Governor Atheel Nujafi’s Ninewa Guards should not be given control of any liberated areas. There are a number of Arab tribes in the governorate that Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) has attempted to co-opt over the years to support its goals of annexing the disputed areas. Pro-Iranian Hashd are also opposed to the Nujafi’s returning to power because they are aligned with the KDP. These arguments are likely to escalate.
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