Battle for Mosul will be an epic showdown with ISIS
BEIRUT - The opening skirmishes have begun in the decisive battle to recapture Mosul, the symbolic heart of the caliphate proclaimed by the Islamic State (ISIS) in June 2014 and its last urban citadel in Iraq.
The fight could last several months with the encircled ISIS garrison possibly resorting to chemical weapons attacks, waves of suicide bombings and using civilians as human shields to blunt the assault.
Casualties are expected to be heavy on both sides and much of the historic city is expected to be blasted into rubble.
The United Nations and aid agencies are bracing for a major refugee influx of up to 700,000 civilians — a crisis they say they are ill-equipped to handle.
The United Nations estimates there are 1.2 million people in and around Mosul compared to a pre- ISIS population of 2 million. It expects many will try to escape the battle despite the dangers, including certain death if caught by the jihadists.
The Iraqi Army and its fractious militia allies are expected to reconquer Mosul but it may prove a hollow victory.
Deep divisions within the forces are likely to cause problems, worsening Iraq’s political paralysis while the political turmoil that has gripped the country since the US withdrawal in December 2011 spirals out of control.
“Instead of unifying the country and creating a more powerful executive branch, the war against ISIS has further fragmented Iraq on all levels of state and society,” observed Ramzy Mardini, an analyst with the US-based Atlantic Council think-tank.
“The US is going to find its influence dwindle even further when it has to deal with more players in the political landscape.”
With Washington and Tehran supporting rival forces in Iraq, internal differences have been exacerbated, making a coherent military operation against ISIS difficult.
There are also concerns that once ISIS has been driven out of northern Iraq, the anti-jihadist alliance of convenience will shatter and trigger a string of sectarian and tribal conflicts.
“The aftermath could prove more difficult than the battle (for Mosul) itself,” warned Michael Knights, a veteran observer of Iraq’s torment who is with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
That could possibly presage the break-up of Iraq, as may also be the case in neighbouring Syria. Taken together, the collapse of two countries that have formed the core of the Arab world could have disastrous effects on the region.
Iraqi commanders boast that Mosul will fall in weeks. The Americans say it could take months. They are both, however, under no illusions that the operation will be a walkover.
“We’re going to anticipate a very tough fight,” said Colonel John Dorrian, a spokesman for US forces in Iraq. “We’re going to anticipate that they’re going to do these things because we’ve seen them elsewhere. But the Iraqis have had a good track record of success, especially in the last year, and they’re beginning to get a very good understanding of what they can expect.”
The government-led force tasked with taking Mosul totals around 60,000 troops and militiamen, outnumbering ISIS by about 10-1.
The Iraqi Army has a dozen brigades, each with 800-1,600 troops, mustering at Qayyarah airbase with tanks and artillery. They will surround Mosul and tighten the noose for a final assault that will be spearheaded by the elite counterterrorism service, trained by US special forces, who led the earlier battles to reclaim other cities from jihadist rule.
They are backed by round-the-clock air strikes by a US-led coalition that in recent weeks has stepped up the tempo of its campaign, particularly against command centres and key leadership figures.
Attack helicopters have been unleashing salvos of missiles on ISIS targets in and around Mosul for weeks. This deployment underlines the importance the Americans accord the Mosul operation, the most ambitious mounted by Baghdad’s forces. The United States did not commit the gunships in the assaults on the western Iraqi cities of Ramadi and Falluja.
Meantime, US and British special forces teams have gathered intelligence, while US and French artillery have been in action, too.
Iranian-backed Shia militias of the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF) and Kurdish peshmerga fighters will form blocking forces to prevent ISIS breakout. Their secondary role in the Mosul operation was dictated largely by Sunni Arab concerns that these forces could trigger sectarian clashes.
The PMF was recently formally inducted into Iraq’s military structure, a move that alarmed both Sunnis and Kurds, the main minorities in Shia-dominated Iraq.
They view the increasingly powerful PMF as Tehran’s storm troopers bent on crushing them as part of Iran’s strategy of creating a land bridge to the west through Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, right up the Israel’s northern border.
“One of the greatest challenges this country is going to face after ISIS is the Shia-Shia, Sunni-Sunni and Kurdish-Kurdish conflicts that are going to happen” as rival military seek to gain supremacy over their own sects or blocs, Hanan al- Fatlawi, a Shia member of parliament and opponent of Shia Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi told the Financial Times. “This next struggle is coming soon.”
ISIS is believed to have 3,000- 4,500 fighters in Mosul, foreign volunteers as well as Iraqis. Most of these fighters are expected to try to escape through a long-prepared tunnel network, making for neighbouring Syria.
US officials say perhaps 1,500 will remain to fight to the death and, if their tactics in the earlier urban battlefields of Tikrit, Ramadi and Falluja are anything to go by, destroy what is left of the city in a scorched-earth strategy.
ISIS has sought to slow the build-up for the offensive by setting fire to oilfields around Qarrayah airbase, 60km south of Mosul. The base, the largest in Iraq, was recaptured from the jihadists on July 9th and has become the operational command centre for the push on Mosul.
Black clouds of noxious smoke, grim reminders of Saddam Hussein’s catastrophic torching of Kuwait’s oil fields in 1991, also mask the jihadist defensive preparations for the battle. The government says it has put out several of the fires but ISIS infiltrators have sabotaged more wells.
When ISIS relinquished Qarrayah, they wrecked the facility, hoping to impede the impending push on Mosul. The Americans refurbished the base, including the runways from which gunships can hammer ISIS positions in Mosul.
This, observed the US-based global security consultancy Stratfor, “coupled with the damage to the air base… could be a chilling sign of what lies in store for Iraq: As the Islamic State loses ground, it is making a concerted effort to ensure that its opponents cannot use the land or resources it leaves behind.”
Pentagon spokesman US Navy Captain Jeff Davis on October 12th said that US surveillance aircraft have seen “everything from berms and trenches being prepared, IEDs [improvised explosive devices] being placed in buildings and cars and along roads along the way, charges being set on bridges, giant pits full of tyres and oil being readied to be lit quickly and create these giant obscuration fires, a very dark cloud that makes it hard to do air operations.”
The labyrinth of tunnels carved out in the bowels of the city are reported to include command centres, armouries, dormitories, hospitals and foodstores as well as tunnels, from which fighters can ambush attackers, and escape routes. These allow the entrenched jihadists to evade air strikes and mask the deployment of their forces.
Iraqi forces found extensive tunnel systems under Ramadi and Sinjar, towns recently liberated from ISIS in operations that provided the template for the much more complicated Mosul offensive.
ISIS fighters have become masters of the IED and they are believed to have planted thousands of bombs across Mosul and its environs to thwart the offensive. It also relies heavily on squads of suicide bombers — usually foreign fighters — driving heavily armoured trucks to break up attacks.
The combination of these tactics is highly effective and difficult to counter and in the Mosul fight, they will likely be used on a far larger scale than was seen in the liberation of Tikrit, Ramadi and Falluja.
ISIS has vowed to use chemical weapons against government forces. Coalition officials say ISIS operates several chemical production plants in the Mosul area.
In September, US and British military sources reported that ISIS has wired a major chemical plant at Mishraq, 50km south of Mosul, with explosives they plan to detonate when Baghdad’s forces advance.
The state-owned plant is one of the largest in Iraq and produces some 21,000 tonnes of sulphur dioxide a day. Chemical warfare experts said, if it is blown up, the facility could release a toxic cloud of sulphur dioxide and hydrogen sulphide with a radius of 17km. That would be a major setback for the offensive but not enough to block it.
It is difficult to gauge the morale of the ISIS fighters in Mosul but civilians inside the city have reported signs the jihadists are getting jumpy — making big sweeps to uncover cell phones and other equipment that could be used to give intelligence to Iraqi forces.
ISIS has foiled a plot by fighters who planned to defect to Iraqi state forces, Reuters reported on October 15th, citing residents and security officials.
The conspiracy was reportedly led by one of the jihadists’ commanders, identified as an aide to ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Fifty-eight people were reportedly executed by drowning and then buried in a mass grave.
This jibes with reports in recent weeks of growing desertions from ISIS in Iraq and Syria, including the city of Raqqa, the caliphate’s official capital, as the jihadists see their Islamic proto-state shrinking by the day.