Coalition of enemies eyes Mosul recapture
BAGHDAD - With a military build-up to recapture Mosul under way, concern is growing that groups — Kurdish security forces, pro-Iran Shia militias and US forces — that are supposedly joining ranks to recapture the Islamic State (ISIS)-held Iraqi city are rather enemies more likely to clash than cooperate.
US military and intelligence officials warned that the Iraqi Army, which suffered a humiliating defeat to ISIS in 2014, is not ready to drive out the jihadists from Mosul without support from Kurdish forces, Shia militias and substantial US equipment and air power.
This fact has left the government of Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al- Abadi with the task of bringing foes together in the war against the jihadists to seize Iraq’s second largest city.
The commanders of Kurdish security forces known as peshmerga and leaders of Shia militias have been exchanging accusations of planning to control the city of nearly 2 million after defeating the hard-line Sunni militants. Each group has demanded the other be excluded from the Mosul offensive.
Jawad al-Tilebawi, a spokesman for the powerful Shia militia of Asaib Ahl al-Haq, warned the Kurdish government has ambitions in the Mosul area, only two days after an official announcement by authorities in the Kurdish autonomous region that peshmerga forces have no intention of withdrawing from areas around Mosul seized from ISIS in the past two years.
“The participation of Hashid Shabi (the Shia militias) is the best guarantee to foil the expansionist ambitions of the peshmerga,” Tilebawi said.
Iraqi Shia lawmaker Iskander Wutut said the only motivation for Kurdish forces in joining the Mosul battle was to annex as much land as they can. He said the peshmerga should not be able to participate in the battle without Abadi’s approval.
“If they have the chance, Kurdish officials will not hesitate for even one minute to send their troops to occupy Baghdad itself,” said Wutut, who is a member of the parliamentary security and defence committee.
The peshmerga responded to critics by saying that Kurdish fighters are “not for rent” and do not take orders from Baghdad.
“Kurdish fighters serve only the interests of Kurdistan and they do not need any permission from anybody. Some people in Baghdad are mistaken if they think that they can issue orders to the peshmerga,” a peshmerga spokesman said.
Such fiery statements by both sides have awakened fears among Iraqis that the supposed brothers-in-arms in the war against jihadists might turn their guns against each other.
“It’s a delicate situation that must be weighed very carefully before any step north is taken,” warned Baghdad political analyst Jawad al- Tae.
“This coalition of enemies is a menace for Mosul, for Iraq, its people and future and, thus, Abadi should look for different alternatives on its composition.”
Tensions have increased with claims that Iraqi soldiers and army officers were insulted and beaten at a peshmerga checkpoint as they returned home on leave. Shia militias warned such acts would not go unpunished.
The Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) in the north and Abadi’s central government in Baghdad have a long list of disagreements over several unresolved issues ranging from oil exports, territorial disputes and federal budget allocations.
KRG President Masoud Barzani said the new borders of his region are being drawn with the blood of Kurdish forces fighting ISIS.
A few months ago, Kurdish forces and Shia militiamen were engaged in fighting to assert control over a town near the oil-rich city of Kirkuk, leaving dozens dead. The scenario could be repeated in Mosul.
Another kind of enmity that could hamper military operations in Mosul is the rejection by pro- Iranian groups of any US and Western involvement in the looming battle. In return, some US officials expressed objection to any participation by militiamen, fearing human rights violations and reprisals against the Sunni population.
The United States is stepping up military efforts to assist Baghdad in its war against ISIS. In a recent visit to Iraq, US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter announced he was dispatching 560 additional troops to Iraq.
The new troops will be stationed in Qayara air base, about 60km south of Mosul, which Iraqi forces recaptured from ISIS in July. The plan is to use the air base as a launching pad to retake Mosul.
With this latest round of deployments, the total official US military presence in Iraq is 4,647, mainly advisers and trainers.
Leaders of Shia militias have been critical of any new US military involvement in Mosul and some even threatened to attack US soldiers or to shoot down US warplanes.
A few days after the announcement of the US troop increase, radical Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr labelled US involvement as an “occupation”.
“Any intervention by the Americans or any other party is rejected and we will consider them as invaders and occupiers,” Sadr warned.