Iraq’s second-largest city will be liberated from Islamic State. But at what cost, and with what result?
“THE time of victory has come...today I declare the start of these victorious operations to free you from the violence and terrorism of Daesh [Islamic State].” With these words, broadcast at 2am on October 17th, Iraq’s prime minister, Haider al-Abadi, announced the start of the long-awaited offensive to liberate Mosul, the country’s second city. First captured by the jihadists in June 2014, it is the only big town in Iraq that they still hold.
This will be the most complex military operation in the country since the American invasion in 2003. The opening phase alone may take several weeks. It began with some 4,000 Kurdish Peshmerga forces advancing on three fronts from the east to within about eight miles (13km) of the city. With support from attack helicopters and air strikes by the American-led coalition, their initial aim was to take control of a number of IS-held villages covering a 45-square-mile (115-square-km) area across the Nineveh plain. Iraqi forces pushing up from the south were joining them as the offensive met its first objective, but briefly stalled because of bad weather, pockets of IS resistance (including suicide-bombers) and the need to clear large numbers of previously buried roadside bombs.
Overall, the advance is still on track. But it took the Iraqi army six hours of fierce combat on October 17th to chase IS fighters from Ibrahim Khalil, a village 20 miles south of Mosul. Overpowered, the militants fled into the parched plains. But they returned as night fell to attack the Iraqi forces with suicide bombs, mortars and heavy machine guns. “No reinforcements showed up so when they attacked we had to retreat from the five villages we captured on Tuesday. We ended up right back where we started,” said Lieutenant-Colonel Mohammed Hadi. “We took back three today but we can’t advance further towards Mosul until the others arrive.” .
It is too early to say how stiff a fight IS will put up. It has had many months to prepare its positions—tunnels have even been dug in some of the outlying villages. It may take another week for Iraqi forces to reach the outskirts of the city, and another month to achieve a degree of control within it. Some commanders are even more cautious about the timetable.
Michael Knights of the Washington Institute, an American think-tank, describes a multi-phased operation, which began with the refurbishment of the Qayyarah air base, some 40 miles south of Mosul, after it was recaptured by the ISF in early July. Qayyarah, which can now handle coalition cargo aircraft, is both the logistical base and the collecting point for Iraqi forces gathering for the attack. About 600 American military advisers (and special forces) arrived there a couple of weeks ago to train and prepare the Iraqis. In all, there appear to be some 25,000 Iraqi army and special-forces troops in place. These, says Mr Knights, have been drawn from across the country to form multi-ethnic, cross-sectarian units. Another 6,000 or so mainly Sunni tribal forces have been recruited from the surrounding area.
As well as the Kurdish Peshmerga, Shia popular-mobilisation forces, most of them backed by Iran, are keen to join the action. However, the aim is for them to secure areas to the west of Mosul. They will do this by stopping IS fighters from fleeing into Syria, by helping take back the town of Tal Afar and by stopping Turkish-backed Kurds from entering Mosul. They seem to have accepted that they will not join in the fighting for the city. Their entry there certainly would not be welcomed by the city’s mainly Sunni-Arab inhabitants, who know the militias’ reputation for killing suspected “collaborators”.
The plan for retaking Mosul has been adapted from a well-thumbed manual. The liberation of Fallujah, which took less than four weeks in June, provides a template. The opening phase of the battle is essentially an ever-tightening encirclement operation intended to cut off the IS fighters inside the city from reinforcements or supplies and to seal off their escape routes west into Syria.
The second phase will see Iraqi forces meeting the enemy at an increasing number of points around the edges of the city. IS positions in Mosul are already being pounded by French and American artillery. Micro drones capable of transmitting images from inside buildings are telling the gunners exactly where to aim. Once the position of IS fighters is known, say American military advisers, they can be quickly picked off by artillery or by coalition aircraft stacked in the skies above Mosul.
The third phase of the operation will be led by Iraq’s elite counter-terrorism units, who will enter the city at different points to kill those IS fighters remaining. The final phase will see the introduction of other Iraqi forces, including police, to help in mopping-up operations, defuse booby traps and begin the task of restoring governance to the traumatised inhabitants.
How smoothly things go will depend in large part on whether IS sees the need to go down fighting for propaganda purposes or whether it makes a tactical retreat to Syria, perhaps to conserve its strength for a last stand there. It may well decide to fight because retreat may not be possible. When fleeing IS convoys left Fallujah, they were an easy target for prowling coalition aircraft. Some strategists have argued for an escape corridor to be left open.
Given the impossibility of defending an area as big as Mosul, Mr Knights expects IS fighters to fall back to a couple of places where they can sell their lives most dearly. One is likely to be the government centre in the west of Mosul; the other is almost certain to be the narrow streets of the old city, where superior firepower is least effective and the danger to civilians is highest.
That the Iraqi government will retake Mosul is not in doubt. But much else remains uncertain. The battle could be over in a few weeks, or it could drag on for months. As IS control begins to slip, many of the 1m or more civilians thought to be in the city may try to escape. Preparations for a big exodus have been made, but confidence in them is not high.
In the slightly longer term, once the relief has worn off, much will depend on the confidence that Mosul’s citizens have in Baghdad’s willingness and ability to secure and rebuild their city. Strapped for cash by low oil prices and riven by sectarian divisions, the Iraqi government will need help from the international coalition. Sunni Arabs will want more of a voice within Iraq, and more power devolved from Baghdad. Lastly, even when IS has lost its territory in Iraq, it may still be able to wage guerrilla war. Unless the politics can be got right, the liberation of Mosul could mark the end of one horror and the beginning of something almost as bad.
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