Mosul battle kicks off but stakes are high

Sunday 17/04/2016
Battle will be long and tough

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.”