Battle of Mosul likely to drag on and so will Iraq’s other woes
London - There are no signs that Iraq’s military campaign against the Islamic State (ISIS) in the city of Mosul will end before the start of 2017.
The operation to retake Mosul from ISIS officially began October 17th, with the participation of a 100,000-person force that included troops from the Iraqi Army, its special forces, Shia-dominated militias and Kurdish peshmerga fighters.
A coalition led by the United States has provided the campaign with air cover. The US military, with 5,000 personnel in Iraq, has also mounted artillery strikes and provided training and assistance to Iraqi forces.
An estimated 5,000 ISIS fighters are holed up in Mosul, holding hostage the city’s 1 million civilian inhabitants. About 2,000 militants have reportedly been killed but as the battle for Mosul heads into a third month, ISIS has shown no signs of weakening, losing only one-quarter of the city to Iraqi forces.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) said ISIS militants in Mosul are targeting civilians who refuse to join them as they retreat to other areas in the city. The rights group called on all warring sides to spare civilians.
“Civilians are being hit from all sides in Mosul,” said Lama Fakih, deputy Middle East director at HRW, adding that ISIS’s “atrocities do not absolve Iraqi forces and the international coalition from doing their utmost to protect civilians”.
Nearly 100,000 people have fled Mosul since military operations began, the International Organisation for Migration said. The United Nations warned that civilian casualties were overwhelming international aid groups. Even in liberated areas, there are reports of food, water and fuel shortages.
Hospitals in the Kurdistan regional capital, Erbil, received dozens of wounded people — civilians and combatants — from the Mosul area on a daily basis, reports said. Iraqi authorities do not release figures of those killed or wounded from their side, in a bid to keep morale high.
Iraqi military officials say ISIS allocates about five militants for every few hundred metres of their territory but the fighters are equipped with explosives-laden vehicles and seem determined to fight to the death. ISIS militants are also using booby traps, drones, snipers and chemical weapons.
Observers say if the military operation in Mosul continues at its current pace, it would take months to recapture the city from ISIS.
“This kind of a fight takes time,” Iraqi special forces Brigadier-General Yehya al-Azawi told the Associated Press. “After each step, we need to repair our equipment and reorganise our forces.”
2016 witnessed a significant loss of territory for ISIS in Iraq and analysts say recapturing Mosul from the militants is inevitable.
“It is a matter of time before Daesh are defeated inside Mosul,” Ihsan al-Shammari, who heads the Iraqi Centre for Political Thought think-tank, told Reuters, using the Arabic acronym for ISIS. “Their ammunition and equipment are being depleted.”
Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al- Abadi said in December that he hoped to see a “major part of” Mosul recaptured from ISIS by the end of 2016 but that appears highly unlikely.
Abadi will still have plenty of issues to worry about after the liberation of Mosul. From a security point of view, ISIS is not likely to disappear altogether if it loses its territory in Iraq.
Unless the root causes for people joining ISIS in Iraq are addressed, one form of insurgency or another will likely continue in Iraq. These causes include, but are not limited to, a widespread sense of persecution among Iraq’s Sunni Arab population.
There are no indications that there will be any reconciliation between the Shia-dominated government and the country’s Sunni Arab community.
“2016 was the year of ISIS decline but its influence is still great because there is no political solution in sight… especially for the Sunni population,” Mathieu Guidere, a Paris-based professor of Middle East geopolitics, told Agence France-Presse.
The rows between the central government in Baghdad and the semi-autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government — over disputed territories as well as budget — are likely to flare up again, once ISIS is defeated.
Politically, Abadi will face having his position further undermined by his predecessor Nuri al-Maliki, who has strong support from Tehran. Add to that the increasing influence of the Iranian-backed Shia militias, which are expected to be more powerful in Iraq following the defeat of ISIS.
Abadi will also have a difficult time filling the posts of the minister of Defence and the minister of Finance with his allies, after parliament ejected the former ministers from office.