Mosul battle kicks off but stakes are high
DETROIT - The long-awaited campaign to liberate Mosul flared on March 24th but soon waned in what Iraqi military officials described as a “successful” first step in what will be a long and tough battle to recapture Iraq’s second largest city from the Islamic State (ISIS).
The United States, which is contributing air and ground support to the operation, said the moves concerning Mosul were part of “shaping operations” that began weeks earlier.
US Defense Department spokesman Army Major Roger Cabiness said in an April 5th statement the moves entail “positioning and preparing troops, establishing routes for logistics and cutting off the enemy’s supply lines”.
The latter was achieved in the early hours of the offensive, dubbed “Operation Conquest”, Iraqi Brigadier-General Yahya Rasool, spokesman for the Joint Military Command, said in a telephone interview from Jordan.
Iraqi forces seized four villages on the outskirts of Makhmour, east of Mosul, and, hours later, Kurdish-allied Yazidis and tribal fighters controlled roads linking Mosul with ISIS-held territory in Syria, which the jihadists had used as supply lines.
No further major advances have been reported.
“It was a successful first operation and we look forward to more soon,” Rasool said.
US officials insisted that Iraqi forces were far from being in a position to take over Mosul and predicted it could take months before a tangible victory could be proclaimed.
The Sunni-dominated city fell to the jihadist fighters during a stunning 2014 blitz in which ISIS militants captured large parts of northern and western Iraq.
Iraqi officials have vowed to recapture Mosul this year. However, a host of difficulties stand in the way.
Although Iraq’s army is trained and equipped by the Americans, it lacks an adequate number of quick mobilisation forces that could advance, seize land, then stabilise it until it is completely neutralised and falls under their command.
The Iraqi Army is also fighting ISIS militants on other fronts in western and central Iraq.
“No sufficient trained troops are yet available for the Mosul battle,” said Abdul-Karim Khalaf, a retired Interior Ministry top official and brigadier-general.
“A battle as significant as the one over Mosul may involve dispatching tens of thousands of highly qualified forces capable of redeeming territory, then holding the large areas in Nineveh province.
“But many army units are scattered in Anbar and Saladin provinces and they’re still engaged with militants there.”
Instead he insisted that Iraqi forces should secure the vast Anbar desert province to the West and completed all operations there before moving to the northern front.
“That way, there would be as many troops available as possibly needed to finish the job in Mosul,” Khalaf said. “The troops cannot jump from one place to another. This would be logistically exhausting.”
Iraqi forces and allied Shia militias have achieved important gains against the militants in recent months, including reclaiming the key cities of Tikrit and Ramadi.
The battle for Mosul is more complicated because of the size of the city and its population of about 2 million. Also, reports from Mosul residents suggested that ISIS has been preparing to use civilians as human shields to slow advancing forces.
In the Ramadi and Tikrit battles, Iraqi military commanders claimed that the influx of civilians escaping clashes had significantly bottled up security forces, providing the militants with time to regroup and enhance their defences.
Raad al-Dahlaki, head of the parliamentary committee on immigration and displaced people, on March 27th said that several thousand people had fled the fighting in the Makhmour area since the start of the operation on March 23rd.
“Preparations to assist the refugees are inadequate. Till now the situation is barely under control but if more families continue to flee Daesh-controlled areas, we should expect the worst,” said Dahlaki, using an Arabic acronym for ISIS.
He blamed the government for failing to alert “concerned authorities” to provide services for the growing number of displaced people in Makhmour.
Baghdad-based security analyst Hashim al-Hashimi said security forces would be faced by a more significant challenge when they reach in Mosul, namely “winning the hearts and minds” of people in areas they want to seize from ISIS.
Hashimi said that the current operation is “limited” and will not go beyond Makhmour.
“The ultimate goal is to push back ISIS fighters from some areas to secure the gathering areas of Iraqi forces, keep them out of the range of Daesh’s artillery and also to cut some supply lines for the jihadists,” he said.
But a sticking point is a widespread rejection by Sunni tribes and Kurdish officials of the participation of pro-Iranian Shia militias in the battle for Mosul, fearing the militants would use it as a pretext to mobilise Mosul’s rival Sunnis against the operation.
Yet, the Iraqi government insists that such participation is key to defeating ISIS, as was the case in the offensives in Ramadi and Tikrit.
In Mosul, residents said they were anxious to see government forces enter the city, explaining that they had grown increasingly disgruntled with the “atrocities” of the militants.
“Every time we hear on the news a possible operation to liberate Mosul, we feel happy,” said Mosul housewife Um Nashwan. “But till now, we see nothing, apart from the air strikes. Our patience is wearing thin.”