The battle for Mosul is a test for Iraqi Army
BEIRUT - The Iraqi government’s offensive to recapture Mosul, the most prized of the Islamic State’s conquests since it seized the northern city in June 2014, will likely be, to paraphrase Winston Churchill, long and hard. And, if the Islamic State (ISIS) sticks to its usual tactics of suicidal defence, extremely costly in terms of casualties.
The long-awaited push to retake Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city with a pre-ISIS population of about 2 million, began March 24th on a cautious note with an operation led by Iraqi Army units and Shia militia fighters in Nineveh province east of Mosul to cut off a key supply route to the city.
The offensive, codenamed Operation Conquest, is notable because it involves US ground forces for the first time since the country’s military pullout in December 2011. In a significant shift in US policy, which has been to avoid committing ground forces to the war against ISIS, the Americans have been quietly building up their military presence beyond the announced limit of 3,870 personnel, which consists mainly of training cadres.
Knowledgeable sources, however, say there are in excess of 5,000 US troops in Iraq. These include a 200-man US Marines artillery battery and a 200-strong special forces task force with orders to kill or capture ISIS commanders and wreak havoc behind jihadist lines.
The Pentagon has been at pains to avoid giving any appearance of an expansion of US operations, largely air strikes, four years after US forces were withdrawn. All dispositions are described as “force protection”.
But the Americans have been heavily involved in planning Operation Conquest and US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter has said the Pentagon is exploring a number of options to “accelerate” the war against ISIS. The unfolding offensive may provide the pretext, fuelled by congressional pressure for action, for renewed US combat forces in Iraq.
The Iraqi Army command said the push began with the recapture of four villages around Makhmour, a town east of Mosul — with covering 155mm artillery fire from the US Marines.
Other government forces pushed towards the town of Qayyarah, 60km south of Mosul as part of the strategy of isolating the ISIS stronghold and the symbol of the Islamic caliphate it proclaimed shortly after the city fell to its forces.
Cutting ISIS’s supply lines to Mosul — particularly those from the jihadist-controlled sector of neighbouring Syria — is a key objective in the initial stage of the offensive. In this regard, Kurdish and Arab rebel forces in Syria overran the ISIS-held eastern town of Shaddadi in late February, severing a major supply link between Mosul and the Syrian city of Raqqa, the caliphate’s de facto capital.
After months of stalemate, ISIS is under growing pressure in Iraq and Syria, where government forces backed by Russian air power have reportedly retaken the strategic ancient city of Palmyra, seized by ISIS in May, in a series of offensives that swung the war in favour of Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime.
ISIS can be expected to wage an all-out fight to keep Mosul, its most symbolically important conquest, and possibly unleash a wave of terror attacks across the country to pin down Iraqi forces.
“The bottom line in,” observed Scott Stewart, an analyst with the US-based global intelligence consultancy Stratfor, “is that even if a militant group is losing power in absolute terms, it can and often will continue to pose a significant insurgent or terrorist threat… That means it will require years of sustained effort to defeat the group militarily in Iraq and Syria, not to mention its franchises elsewhere in the Middle East, Africa and South Asia.”
Operation Conquest will be a critical test for the Iraqi Army, which, poorly led and riddled by corruption, collapsed in the face of ISIS’s blitzkrieg in the summer of 2014 during which the jihadists overwhelmed a vastly superior government force to seize Mosul, along with most of Nineveh and Anbar provinces.
With American help, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s government has struggled to rebuild the Iraqi military, a painstaking process that is still under way.
Iraqi government forces, heavily supported by Kurdish peshmerga fighters, Iranian-backed Shia militias and US air power, have notched several successes over the last year in a fightback that has gradually acquired some momentum despite deep political and sectarian divisions that still plague Iraq.
Iraqi strategists brag that their forces will retake Mosul by the end of the year. But US military officers in Baghdad fear that Iraq’s fractious military will need much longer than that to prevail.
US and Iraqi officials estimate the offensive will need eight to 12 brigades, about 24,000-36,000 men. But only 3,000 have been deployed in Makhmour — and the swelling political crisis in Baghdad has led Abadi to deploy units of the elite counterterrorism force from the Euphrates river front to ensure security in the capital.