Battle over Mosul delayed, but clock ticking
BAGHDAD - Iraqi security forces have been cautious not to announce a date for a long-awaited offensive to recapture Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, which fell to Islamic State (ISIS) militants in June 2014 in a brisk takeover blamed on the rapid capitulation by Iraq’s army.
Seizing Mosul requires arduous vetting and special training of the Iraqi ground forces who will fight ISIS. Observers insist the force must include Sunni Muslims to avoid further sectarian tensions that have shattered Iraq in the wake of the US-led invasion that toppled Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein in 2003.
Before ISIS seized it, Mosul’s population consisted of majority Sunnis living in peace and coexistence with Shias, Christians and other religious and ethnic groups, despite the sectarian wave that battered Iraq. When ISIS took over, most of the minorities fled. Those who remained were killed or forced to convert.
With local reports suggesting that the battle over Mosul was dawning, security officials said Iraqi intelligence data showed that some top ISIS leaders, especially non-Arab foreigners, have been gradually and quietly slipping into Libya from Iraq and Syria.
“They’re apparently shifting bases, in case they were forced to flee Iraq and Syria,” a security official said, insisting on anonymity.
The official scenario on the composition of Iraqi Army units to attack Mosul is similar to what it was in Ramadi, provincial capital of the Western Anbar province, where the city centre was recaptured by mainly Sunni Iraqi forces and excluded militias affiliated with Iraq’s rival Shia sect and others directly linked to Iran.
In Mosul, hundreds of loyalists to the disbanded Arab Ba’ath Socialist Party under Saddam, who were deprived of their ranks and ostracised by successive Shia-led cabinets, have sided with ISIS if only to seek revenge from the government.
Clearly, the Shia-dominated Iraqi Army, which sustained a humiliating defeat when its well-equipped and US-trained soldiers abandoned their positions on news that ISIS was moving in, will not be able to retrieve Mosul without US backup, said Iraqi political analyst Thabet al-Horan.
“Mosul is not Ramadi,” he said. “There must be a lot of preparations ahead of any calculated action. Besides decisive military plans, the Iraqi force must be mainly Sunni, like in Ramadi. It must be trained and armed. Strategies must also be devised by the Americans, who should plan the offensive and also give aerial backup to Iraqi ground forces.
“It is complicated.”
In the early days of its reign in Mosul, ISIS sought to lure residents by providing them with services unavailable even in Baghdad. That included 24 hour-a-day electricity, as opposed to eight hours on average in Baghdad; paving roads; collecting street and household rubbish according to a fixed schedule; and even washing public buildings and streets and sweeping public squares.
As days passed, ISIS sought to consolidate its rule over the city. The group’s jihadist leaders roamed the streets, distributing leaflets warning residents to quit smoking and drinking alcohol. Violators were threatened with death under strict Islamic laws. Millions of cartons of tobacco were burned and smugglers were tortured and killed.
Women were forced to quit their posts in public offices and remain at home. They were instructed to leave only in emergency cases with a male escort and a new dress code: their faces, hands and feet completely covered, adding to their head-to-toe black Arabic robes.
Jeans, tight shirts and other fashionable male clothing and haircuts have been banned. Violators received 20 whip lashes, were jailed for a week and had their heads shaved and clothes confiscated. Men who were suspected of homosexual activities were pushed off rooftops or cliffs.
Men and women alike were banned from leaving the city, which turns into a ghost town after 10pm. “A house with a dim light inside will be warned. After the second warning, all males would be penalised with 20 whip lashes in a public square,” according to Mohammed Qassem, 37, a jobless Mosul land surveyor.
Landlines were cut, so were mobile phone services and the internet. Social media websites were blocked and TV satellite stations jammed. Services were gradually restored but residents may suddenly be asked to hand over their phones to ISIS security, who search for traces of possible contacts with the central government in Baghdad.
“Most often people are found guilty of being spies to the government and they are executed instantly,” said Qassem’s cousin, Khaled, 42.
“People are so fed up of ISIS that, even Sunni tribesmen who sided with them initially can’t wait to see them go.”
Political analyst Hadi Jalo, who closely monitors ISIS’s activities, told The Arab Weekly that, with the United States and Russia agreeing to rid Iraq and Syria of the militant group, its jihadists were looking for alternatives, possibly refuge with Arab or Muslim tribes in North Africa or Afghanistan.
“ISIS will move towards Libya, Egypt’s Sinai and also to eastern Afghanistan,” Jalo said. He said the move into the latter area would “scare Russia”.
“ISIS will also try to move to Saudi Arabia and Gulf Arab countries,” he said.